House leaders unveiled a $33.8 billion state budget proposal for fiscal 2014 yesterday, calling for a 3.9 percent increase in state spending that cuts $1 billion off Governor Deval Patrick’s proposed budget. The House budget proposal, which will be debated by the House beginning April 22, would draw $350 million from the state’s stabilization account, or $50 million less than Patrick’s proposed spending from the “rainy day” fund. The budget also counts on $83.1 million in casino licensing revenues new to the budget process. In response to another crisis over evidence tampering at state drug evidence laboratories, the Ways and Means budget proposes $3 million to hire 43 short-term employees and $846,000 to build out the headquarters of the State Police drug lab in Maynard to address a backlog of testing samples.
The budget approved also boosts funding for local aid by $21.3 million over last year and increases public school aid by $25 per student, or $109.5 million. Patrick and legislative leaders are embroiled in a tense debate over how high to raise taxes and competing proposals to generate between $500 million and $1.9 billion in new revenue for transportation and education. The budget from House Ways and Means counts on $500 million in new revenue from higher taxes on cigarettes, gas and businesses. The House approved those tax hikes Monday and the Senate is gearing up to consider them.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey said the House plan directs $265 million of the new tax revenue to transportation, and uses the balance to invest in local aid, Chapter 70 education aid and higher education. Asked if the new tax revenue was part of the solution to freezing UMass college tuition and fees. The budget plan dedicates $39 million in increased funding to the University of Massachusetts as part of strategy to achieve a 50 percent balance between state and university funding over the next two years that UMass officials have said previously would be sufficient to freeze tuition and fee rates for two years. State universities and community colleges will also see a bump, in part because of new gaming money earmarked for the community colleges.
The budget proposes a 10-member commission to review the financing model for higher education in Massachusetts and determine appropriate funding levels moving forward. The Ways and Means proposal calls for the same type of commission to review early education services and needs. In the area of reforms to the Sex Offender Registry, the budget requires the Department of Early Education and Care to perform address matches of licensed care facilities and the registry in the wake of a report from Auditor Suzanne Bump raising concerns about a lack of oversight. Level II sex offenders, whose identities are only available now upon request at local police stations, would be posted online, under a provision in the budget.