By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- The time has arrived for lawmakers to earn their money, quite literally. It's budget season. Some will go home happy, others empty-handed. And in the end, most will vote yes.
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey this week laid out House leadership's spending plan for fiscal 2015, a $36.2 billion budget that seeks to make progress on drug addiction, college tuition rates and foster care oversight, but includes very little that might stir an uprising among the populace.
In his rewrite of Gov. Deval Patrick's budget filed back in January, House Speaker Robert DeLeo kept true to his word by keeping out anything that could be construed as a new tax from the proposal. "Surprise!" exclaimed Patrick, sarcastically, when asked about the predictable rejection of his annual request to apply the sales tax to candy and soda. Lawmakers said yes last year to tobacco and gas taxes, but are holding the line on candy and soda.
Republicans didn't have much in the way of criticism for the budget, either. It might have had something to do with the fact that they had less time to review it than the press before they, and their Democratic counterparts, had to file proposed amendments before the end of business Friday. But the GOP caucus did raise a fuss about the Democrats' move to exclude any debate about certain local aid levels or welfare reform when the bill hits the floor April 28.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker rushed to the side of House Republicans, blaming the Democrats for stifling debate and panning the choice to use stabilization fund reserves "when it isn't raining."
Dempsey's answer to both attacks was simple: been there, done that. Dempsey said lawmakers have already had lengthy debates on both issues when they debated and passed a local aid resolution negotiated with the Senate earlier this year, as well as a complete welfare reform package last year that is still in conference committee.
Despite some foot-stomping from environmental groups and youth violence prevention advocates, most realized that the Ways and Means budget is just the starting point. It's a document crafted by DeLeo and his top aides with an understanding that spending will be added during debate to give some lawmakers wins on their top priorities. There can't be any budget drama if there are no causes for lawmakers to rescue.
Cue the State House rallies, which will undoubtedly echo through the halls of the capitol over the next two weeks as lawmakers pause for Passover and school vacations before debating the budget the last week in April.
One of those areas that could be in line for more cash is early education. With seemingly every Democrat running for governor this year crowing about the need for universal pre-kindergarten, the Dempsey budget included even less money for the expansion of early education and care than Patrick's proposal did - about $7.5 million.
Given the $1.5 billion price tag that the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center attached to universal public pre-school for three and four-year-olds in a report out this week, neither budget makes much of a dent.
"We always want to do more and we did our very best out of the gate, but my good friend and colleagues behind me and those who will be debating the budget the week of the 28th will continue to try to improve upon the document and improve upon the proposal, but I think we are clearly committing to all areas of education," Dempsey said.
Yet another lawmaker who will be watching the budget process closely, but from a different vantage point, is Lowell's Kevin Murphy who said goodbye this week as he prepares to depart the House after 18 years to become Lowell's new city manager.
The House may have "shortchanged" early education, in the governor's estimation, but Patrick this week was looking for their backing on other issue: economic development.
While DeLeo has been foreshadowing some type of job creation push later in the session, Patrick pre-empted the speaker this week with a proposal of his own, one of the few legislative initiatives the governor has pushed in his final year in office.
The $100 million bill the governor filed reads like a laundry list of regulatory changes and financing proposals for grants and tax credits to facilitate growth in the high-tech sector and the revitalization of "Gateway Cities" where economic growth has lagged behind Boston.
In particular, Patrick is proposing to mimic the environment in Silicon Valley where California bans non-compete clauses to allow tech wiz-kids to bounce from start-up to start-up. The plan also calls for more international marketing of the state and a side-stepping of federal immigration law to allow talented international students to stay in Massachusetts at a public or private college as "entrepreneurs in residence" if they can't get a traditional work visa due to limits on the number the feds hand out.
Economic development, conveniently, happens to be the one thing candidates running for Patrick's job agree they will use to pay for their many costly campaign promises. Democrat Joe Avellone happens to be the only candidate willing to rule out tax increases, while the others call taxes a "last resort" when efficiency and economic growth are exhausted as revenue resources.
While businesses wait to see what becomes of the governor's bill - and what the speaker has in mind - they received a gift from the House and Senate this week when they put aside their differences on unemployment insurance reform and the minimum wage to freeze unemployment insurance rates in 2014.
The freeze had been bottlenecked by its inclusion in the broader bills.
The House and Senate also passed domestic violence and gas leak legislation, respectively, this week, both of which appear destined for the pile of bills in conference committees.
STORY OF THE WEEK: House budget writers set the baseline with a $36.2 billion proposal for fiscal 2015 that will marinate for more than two weeks before it hits the floor.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "The rough and tumble world of conventions and backroom politics and how it really happens in the real world is not the place for judicial interference," MassGOP lawyer Louis Ciavarra on why Tea Party businessman Mark Fisher's lawsuit for ballot access should be dismissed, via the Globe's Stephanie Ebbert.