I am pleased to report that the Massachusetts House of Representatives has continued to move the Commonwealth forward by passing a $36.5 billion state budget focused on economic growth and increased government accountability and oversight. The spending plan makes important investments in local aid, education and human services including substance abuse treatment and prevention and mental health care. Building on a responsible yet proactive approach to combating the recession, the Legislature’s budget contains multiple measures to achieve sustainable economic growth and provide essential services that support the Commonwealth’s citizens.
This budget enhances the Commonwealth’s partnerships with cities and towns through numerous funding streams including $945.8 million to Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA), a $25.5 million increase from FY14 and $4.4 billion for Chapter 70, a record funding level. The spending plan provides $257.5 million for the Special Education Circuit Break, ensuring full funding for the third consecutive year and $70.3 million for Regional School Transportation to reimburse municipalities at 90 percent, marking the highest rate in the program’s history.
In addition to educational investments through local aid, this year’s budget extends Massachusetts ongoing commitment to strengthening its educational systems to foster equality and provide residents with a competitive edge. The budget allocates $15 million to expand access to early education and funds a grant program at $9.1 million to support Early Head Start and Head Start programs. The budget also prioritizes higher education through investments in state universities, community colleges and the University of Massachusetts and includes $519 million for UMass which will enable a freeze in tuition and fees for the second year. In addition, the budget dedicates money to implement the STEM Starter Academy, an initiative created in the FY14 budget aimed at strengthening and expanding STEM programming in community colleges.
This year’s budget emphasizes the importance of enhanced fiscal predictability and sustainable investments, a practice that has raised Massachusetts bond rating to AA+, the highest in the state’s history. In an extension of this fiscal prudence, the spending plan makes the lowest draw from the Stabilization Fund in four years and contributes about $1.79 billion to Massachusetts’ unfunded pension liability to accelerate the timetable for full funding. Additional economic development measures include:
- Codifies the Massachusetts Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Advisory Council;
- Travel and tourism is one of the state’s largest industries, generating almost $17 billion in travel related expenditures and supporting 124,700 in-state jobs. The budget allocates $18 million for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and$7.5 million in regional tourism funding to promote statewide initiatives and increased international travel;
- Supports the Massachusetts Cultural Council with $12 million in funding;
- Provides $18.8 million for local libraries, representing an increase of $2.4 million from the previous fiscal year;
- Establishes a process for all in-state and out-of-state direct shippers to receive a direct wine shipper’s license from the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) and allows for the collection of state taxes; and,
- Provides $2 million for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership that will benefit programs designed to assist small and mid-sized manufacturers.
To heighten accountability and streamline operations, the budget establishes the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology (MOIT) to be administered by a Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Commonwealth. The CIO will be responsible for supervising all IT services of state agencies and will review any proposed IT expenditure costing more than $200,000. The Massachusetts Health Connector Authority will be considered a state agency for the purposes of MOIT oversight.
This budget reflects the Legislature’s pledge to combat the alarming rise in mental health problems and substance addiction. It allocates almost $18 million in new spending to help combat substance addiction including $10 million for the Substance Abuse Services Trust Fund to provide substance abuse services to an additional 10,000 individuals in need of treatment. The spending plan also includes the following investments in substance abuse services and treatment:
- Creates a multi-year grant program at $5 million to fund mental health and substance abuse counselors within schools;
- Increases funding for specialty courts, including drug courts, to $3 million;
- Places addiction specialists in the Brockton, Plymouth and Quincy courts;
- Funds training and purchase of Nasal Narcan™;
- Creates a voluntary accreditation program for sober homes; and,
- Provides additional funding for the Prescription Monitoring Program to prevent the over-prescription of medications.
To improve quality of care for people suffering from mental illness, the budget provides $10 million for the expansion of community-based placements for at least 100 discharge-ready patients in the Department of Mental Health system, while maintaining sheltered workshops for those individuals who wish to remain in a residential setting. It also creates a Behavioral and Mental Health Special task Force to identify impediments to the delivery of comprehensive treatment.
The budget includes numerous additional health and human services provisions including $60 million in MassHealth investments and:
- $47.5 million for nursing homes to reduce the gap between Medicaid payments and uncompensated care;
- $35 million for Disproportionate Share Hospitals;
- $3 million in funds for employments programs for clients of the Department of Developmental Services;
- Requires the implementation of a hearing process for long-term facilities before there is any intent to close;
- Creates a legislative and executive working group to examine and make recommendations concerning Bridgewater State Hospital; and,
- Maintains 45 beds at Taunton State Hospital and funds the opening of two additional wings at Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.
Building on the continued leadership in reforming and strengthening the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the budget provides $185.6 million to reduce social worker caseloads. It also includes initiatives to improve communications, IT and record keeping practices, and ensure initial medical screenings of all children entering DCF care within 72 hours. Background checks will now be required for all current and future foster parents. Individuals will be precluded from becoming foster parents if convicted of serious crimes, including those involving violence or sexual in nature.
The budget also:
- Provides $65 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program and permits for unexpended FY14 funds to carry forward, allowing hundreds of new families to access safe and permanent housing;
- Expands the Veterans Motor Vehicle Excise Exemption to include leased cars;
- Places a moratorium on the issuance of a Chapter 91 tidelands license permitting the development of rail lines or rail facilities for the transportation of ethanol to storage or blending facilities in the cities of Cambridge, Chelsea, Revere, Everett, Somerville and East Boston until January 1, 2017;
- Establishes a permanent commission on the future of metropolitan area beaches;
- Establishes a memorial to honor Massachusetts Iraq and Afghanistan Fallen Heroes; and,
- Reestablishes the Water Supply Protection Program to promote the safety and purity of the Commonwealth’s water supplies and the protection of watershed lands.
Representative Paul J. Donato represents the cities of Medford and Malden in the 35th Middlesex District.