By State House News Service
BOSTON -- With special attention paid to fighting drug addiction and improving the performance of the embattled Department of Children and Families, House leaders on Wednesday presented a $36.2 billion annual budget proposal that also features scores of spending cuts.
The budget blueprint for the fiscal year that starts July 1 increases spending by 5 percent over last year, but falls about $191 million short of what Gov. Deval Patrick proposed in January after House Speaker Robert DeLeo made clear he would not pursue new taxes and nixed proposals to tax the sale of candy and soda or expand the bottle bill in the budget. House leaders say Patrick's fiscal 2015 budget increased spending by 5.3 percent.
"Surprise," Patrick joked when asked about the exclusion of the candy and soda tax from the House budget. "They don't accept everything we propose. But they are very consistent in many, many areas, particularly in transportation and many other items in the budget."
Patrick said Wednesday that the budget doesn't provide enough new funding for early-education programs and said he will push for money as the budget progresses through the statehouse.
The House Ways and Means Committee released the bill Wednesday, and lawmakers have until Friday to review it and propose amendments in advance of the House's annual budget debate scheduled to begin April 28. The Senate plans to unveil and process its own budget proposal in May.
While the budget reflects the agreement reached early with the Senate to increase local aid for public schools by $100 million and boost unrestricted aid by $25 million over last year, officials said additional increased funding was targeted for regional school transportation, special education, charter schools, and local libraries.
"It shows our partnership that we feel we have with our cities and towns," DeLeo told the News Service during an interview in his office.
"I would say on the whole the education numbers in the Ways and Means budget seem to be pretty good. They shortchange, in my view, on early education. They also do on innovation schools which was one of the centerpieces of the Achievement Gap Act. So we will be working with members in the amendment process on those two priorities and beyond," Patrick told reporters.
The House budget proposes a $7.5 million increase for early-childhood education and care that lawmakers say will add 1,250 new child-care slots to help reduce a long waiting list. Patrick proposed a $15 million increase.
With increased attention being paid to the rising epidemic of opioid abuse, DeLeo said the House budget would increase funding for the First Responder program to help communities with higher overdose rates to equip paramedics and others with Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an overdose.
Patrick's effort to ban the prescribing of a new powerful painkiller Zohydro has been challenged in court and was looked upon unfavorably Tuesday by a federal judge, but the House budget also zeroes in on prescription drugs. According to a summary, it proposes to allow the commissioner of public health to limit the distribution of certain prescription opioids that lack certain abuse deterrent qualities consistent with federal law.
The Ways and Means budget would also increase the maximum prison sentence for trafficking heroin from 20 years to 30 years, pilot new drug-diversion programs, and add 64 treatment beds to reduce the number of addicts diverted to correctional facilities.
A $2.7 million investment in specialty courts will enable the Trial Court to fund five drug courts, two mental-health courts and one veterans' court, according to House officials. Gov. Patrick also included the investment in specialty courts. Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence hopes to double specialty courts to 50 over the next three years.
"Many times you'll find that substance abuse and mental illness go hand in hand. This budget, I think, reflects that," DeLeo said.
To address lapses at the Department of Children and Families that most notably contributed to the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver in Fitchburg, DeLeo said his budget committed the resources necessary to hire 100 new employees to keep caseloads to 15 per case worker with no more than 28 children under their supervision.
The budget recommends a new licensing requirement for DCF social workers and adopts recommendations made by the Inspector General and others strengthening background checks of social workers and hiring medical officers at each regional office to ensure that children receive medical screenings within 72 hours.
With roughly $68 million in increased spending on higher education, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, said the House budget beats Gov. Patrick's proposal by $3 million in funding for the University of Massachusetts, which he said should be enough to freeze tuition and fees for the second straight year. DeLeo and Dempsey both said they were working with state and community college leaders to similarly freeze tuition and fees rates, but DeLeo said their success could be "uneven" across all three systems.
"This is an important investment in high-quality, public higher education in Massachusetts," UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan said. "At UMass Lowell alone, we have seen the annual state appropriation go from 51 percent of our revenue stream in Fiscal Year 2000 to only 24 percent in Fiscal Year 2014. As funding has declined, our enrollment has grown, up 45 percent since 2007."
Patrick said there was "a lot to like" in the House budget, and added that he expected lawmakers would derail his proposal to tax the sale of candy and soda, an idea the governor has repeatedly proposed. After Patrick released his version of the budget in January, DeLeo made it clear he would not pursue new taxes this year after working in 2013 to raise taxes on tobacco and gas and to pass and then repeal a software services tax.
The full budget is posted online at: https://malegislature.gov/Budget/FY2015/House.