House, Senate Set to Vote on Mass. Budget

Massachusetts House and Senate budget negotiators reached a deal late Tuesday on a final version of the $38.1 billion state spending plan for the 2016 fiscal year

A compromise $38.1 billion budget that was teed up for legislative approval Wednesday includes measures aimed at strengthening management of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and require lawmakers to sign off before public money could be spent on a potential 2024 Olympics in Boston.

After weeks of negotiations, a six-member House-Senate conference committee reached a deal late Tuesday on a final version of the spending plan for the 2016 fiscal year, which began last week. The plan would increase overall spending by 3.5 percent over the just completed fiscal year.

The budget also calls for a hike in the state's earned income tax credit and would boost spending on programs to combat homelessness and the state's opioid addiction problem.

Gov. Charlie Baker said he looked forward to reviewing the entire package when it reaches his desk. He said it offers a promising start to the effort to fix the MBTA, which was widely criticized last winter after a series of snowstorms led to crippling breakdowns in public transportation.

Budget negotiators adopted a version of Baker's plan to create a five-member financial control board, appointed by the governor, to oversee the transit system for the next three years. The budget would also suspend the Pacheco Law, which limits the T's ability to contract out some services to private vendors, for three years.

"These measures, along with the tools outlined in our proposal to fix the MBTA, are absolutely necessary to provide the riders, taxpayers, businesses and workers of Massachusetts the world class transit system that they deserve," Baker said.

The proposed budget includes language that would prevent state spending on the 2024 Summer Olympics without public hearings and approval by the Legislature. Boston is in the running to be named host of the games, with bids also expected from several other cities including Paris, Rome, Hamburg, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary.

The budget provision was quickly dismissed as "smoke and mirrors" by supporters of a proposed 2016 state ballot question that would seek an outright ban on taxpayer funding for the games if they are held in Boston. They said the language merely requires the Legislature to vote on funds for the Olympics - as it would on any other appropriation.

Evan Falchuk, chairman of the group Citizens for a Say, and Geoff Diehl, co-chair of Tank Taxes for Olympics, noted in a statement Wednesday that lawmakers voted down more restrictive language on Olympics spending.

"This is more Beacon Hill double talk," said Falchuk. "There is no ban to protect the taxpayers."

Under the budget the maximum credit allowed under the state's current earned income tax credit, aimed at helping the state's working families, will increase from $950 to $1,459. The tax credit will take effect next year.

The compromise plan did not include a Senate-passed amendment that would freeze the state's income tax rate at 5.15 percent. Under current law, the tax rate would be allowed to drop gradually to 5 percent.

The budget would also:

- Increase spending on the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program by $20 million to help homeless families;

- Spend $3 million for 250 new clinical stabilization beds to help recovering addicts;

- Create two new recovery high schools for young drug abusers;

- Let cities and towns buy overdose antidotes like Narcan through a bulk purchasing program run by the state Department of Public Health.

Both chambers are expected to take up-or-down votes on the compromise plan. The budget cannot be amended at this step in the process.

The state has been operating since July 1 on a $5.5 billion stopgap budget.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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