By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- The Senate passed a $196 million spending bill on Thursday after rejecting a proposal to freeze unemployment insurance rates paid by employers - a provision the House adopted when it passed its version of the bill on Wednesday.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), who filed the amendment to freeze the unemployment insurance rates, said there is a belief in the Senate that UI reforms will be passed in the Legislature before an April deadline. The amendment was rejected without debate.

"My understanding, it was the belief of the Senate that our bill that was passed through the Senate will prevail, and make unnecessary a separate freeze. I think this may be well an issue that we have to revisit," Tarr told the News Service after the session.

In the past few years, the Legislature has repeatedly frozen unemployment insurance rates paid by businesses. The Senate recently passed legislation making reforms to the system, and last year approved a separate bill raising the minimum wage. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has repeatedly said he would like to tie the two issues together, but a bill has yet to emerge for debate.

Tarr said since the House included the UI freeze in the spending bill it may be an issue that comes up in conference committee on the two bills (S 2010) and (H 3899).

"For today there wasn't a lot of debate on it because I think everyone is engaging in the good faith and the hope that the larger bill will pass," Tarr said. "But that's not guaranteed."

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said Wednesday the rate freeze needed to be done before bills went out to businesses. Dempsey said the House planned to take up legislation reforming unemployment insurance later this session.

"The reason we are adopting the freeze today is really one of management because the bills have to go out and if we do not take action today it becomes a very challenging situation," Dempsey said.

Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg wouldn't comment on the strategy or say if the Senate leadership was trying to pressure the House into action on more comprehensive unemployment insurance reforms.

"There's time to get it to the finish line," Rosenberg said.

The Senate added nearly $40 million to the spending bill that will give cities and towns money to pay for snow and ice removal, fund sheriff departments operations, and steers millions of dollars to address a homelessness problem across the state that has not subsided.

In opening remarks, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) pointed out that the state's tax collection estimate for this fiscal year was raised by $400 million and collections since then have exceeded benchmarks by $83 million.

Also included in the spending bill was a requirement that the Department of Children and Families submit a "written finding" that a child will not be in harm's way when placing them with someone who has a prior criminal record. Tarr, who sponsored the amendment, said there are currently 552 homes where a child is being cared for by a guardian with a prior criminal record. A criminal record does not automatically preclude someone from becoming a guardian.

"Reportedly, the majority of these placements are with relatives. That offers some comfort. But we know often times when children are victimized it is by someone they know," Tarr said during debate.

Tarr said his amendment does not forbid children from being placed in a home with someone with a record. "What it says is the agency can place a child after submitting a written finding that says there is no threat," he said.

Sen. Michael Barrett, a Democrat from Lexington, argued against making any changes to DCF policies until the outside agency brought in by the Patrick administration, the Child Welfare League of America, reports its findings and recommendations on fixing the troubled agency.

"It would be nice if we could hold off, even compelling amendments like this, until the outside agency does its work. I think they are going to give us what we hope is a comprehensive set of recommendations."

The amendment was approved 32 to 5. 

Senators rejected an amendment that would have required $20 million in unanticipated revenue from the state Lottery in fiscal year 2014 to be earmarked for local aid to cities and towns.

Sen. Robert Hedlund, who filed the amendment, said when the Lottery was created profits were suppose to returned to cities and towns. Hedlund argued the unexpected revenue in fiscal year 2014 should be turned over to cities and towns.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democrat from Taunton, argued the money would be allocated when the fiscal year 2015 budget is debated, and accused Hedlund of being "cute" with the proposal that he said related to the fall elections. The amendment was rejected 6 to 31.

Matt Murphy contributed reporting.