BOSTON (State House News Service) - The annual state budget season moved to the next phase Thursday evening as the Senate unanimously approved a nearly $56 billion spending plan that ramps up spending while setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars for a tax relief plan that hasn't been unveiled.
Senators voted 40-0 to finalize their rewrite of a spending plan first proposed by Gov. Maura Healey and already approved by the House, setting up weeks of closed-door negotiations with their counterparts down the hall ahead of the July 1 start of fiscal year 2024.
That conference committee process, which in recent years has failed to produce a final accord before the deadline, will decide the fate of some of the most notable parts of the budget, including how it divides $1 billion in new income surtax revenues and whether to give undocumented students access to in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
Over the course of three days of deliberations, senators packed tens of millions of dollars more onto the budget's bottom line, mostly through earmarks for infrastructure projects and community organizations in their individual districts.
The Senate approved more than 400 amendments, collectively adding $82.2 million in spending and pushing the bottom line to about $55.9 billion, a Senate Ways and Means Committee spokesperson said.
Notable additions senators made include funding for kits to test whether drinks have been spiked amid a worrying rise in cases, another attempt to study congestion pricing and other transportation cost questions, and a tweak to a House-backed push to revive and make permanent an eviction diversion policy.
Unlike the $56.2 billion budget the House approved last month, the Senate's version does not include funding to continue offering free school meals to all students -- a measure top Senate Democrats say they plan to address in another spending bill -- nor does it allow the Lottery to offer games online.
Senators quietly rejected an amendment that would have added online Lottery authorization into their budget, revealing opposition among the chamber's top Democrats to another gambling expansion soon after the approval and launch of sports betting.
Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat, supports expanding the Lottery online, which could triangulate pressure on Senate negotiators during the conference committee process. And in the other direction, Healey also backs the Senate's push to open up in-state tuition and state financial aid to high school graduates regardless of immigration status, which the House rejected 17 years ago with Speaker Ron Mariano opposing the policy.
Undocumented students could only qualify if they attended a Massachusetts high school for at least three years and graduated or completed a GED, and they would need to submit an affidavit indicating they applied for citizenship or legal permanent residence or plan to do so once eligible, among other paperwork.
"We will provide a tangible benefit for students who may not otherwise attend college, and it will build the state's workforce by nurturing, harnessing and growing the talent that we have right here at home," Senate President Karen Spilka said in a speech closing out the final day of deliberations. "I'm proud that we recognized the time for in-state tuition for these hard-working students was long past due."
All 37 Senate Democrats rallied behind the proposal on Wednesday, rejecting a Republican proposal to spike the tuition change from the budget bill.
"The fight for in-state tuition has lasted for 20 years, and it finally has a real chance of happening. And 23 states have already, have similar in-state tuition laws for undocumented students, including New York, Rhode Island, California and, get this, Texas. Let me say that again -- Texas," Sen. Liz Miranda, a Boston Democrat, said during debate.
The Senate also diverged from the House on its approach to tax relief. The House approved a tax relief bill (H 3770) -- estimated at a $587 million impact in FY24 and $1.1 billion once it fully takes effect over several years -- before tackling its budget bill. Senate Democrats were not ready to move ahead on tax relief so the Senate Ways and Means Committee instead factored in $575 million to cover tax relief in a bill that still has not yet emerged.
Even without tax relief baked into the annual state budget, its specter loomed over much of the deliberations. Democrats successfully defended their push to prevent new surtax revenue from making it easier to trigger the kind of automatic tax rebates that taxpayers received late last year.
They also rejected a proposal from Minority Leader Bruce Tarr to formalize a $600 million reserve for tax relief after Tarr argued that the legislation as written does not guarantee any money will in fact be set aside.
"I immediately began looking for those $575 million, and I couldn't find them. I looked again and I looked again and I couldn't find the $575 million that was in the budget," Tarr said, holding up a comically oversized mock magnifying glass to pantomime his search. "I was told that it is a balance sheet entry. We know that balance sheet entries can be changed without legislative action. They can come and go. They are subject to interpretation, and they would not necessarily involve the direct input of this body."
Senate budget chief Michael Rodrigues replied that the proposed money is "right here in section 1A," which lists an anticipated $575 million revenue hit from tax relief.
"The $575 million is fully accounted for, fully represented. In theory, we have $575 million less revenue to expend on operating budget expenses within this budget," Rodrigues said.
Senate Democrats have not said when they will unveil or debate their tax relief proposal.
Written By Chris Lisinski/SHNS
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