This week, the Massachusetts Senate begins debate over the Commonwealth’s annual budget for the 2015 fiscal year. In recent years, strong fiscal management and consistently on-time and balanced budgets have led to one of the largest rainy day funds in the nation and the highest bond rating in our Commonwealth’s history. I’m pleased that this budget continues on that path. Further, while we must budget within our means, we must not lose sight of the fact that a budget is also a values statement; and, I feel that this budget aptly reflects our shared values of being forward-thinking, compassionate, and fiscally responsible.
The proposed FY15 budget represents an increase of approximately 5% over FY14 spending. The main driver of this spending increase is health care, with the expenditure for MassHealth increasing by about $1.3 billion. This increase alone represents much of the spending growth from this past year’s budget, which is one of the reasons I have focused much of my work in the State House on ways to contain health care costs while maintaining the quality of care for all and promoting healthier living. For instance, I led the effort to create a first-in-the-nation Prevention and Wellness Trust, which allots funds to community-based public health and wellness programs across the Commonwealth, aimed at reducing rates of preventable chronic diseases and lowering health care costs. I also co-chair the Legislature’s Prevention for Health Caucus.
Along with health care, another key budget priority for me is education. The proposed FY15 budget includes $4.4 billion in Chapter 70 education aid from the state to cities and towns, which is an increase of about $100 million over last year’s figure. This represents a record level of investment in K-12 public education. The budget also includes strong support for early childhood education, to help reduce wait lists, and for public higher education, to prevent increases in tuitions and fees. The budget also fully funds the Special Education Circuit Breaker. I’m also thrilled that the House’s version of the budget included my proposal to update and reform the Chapter 70 foundation budget, with the goal of ensuring adequate and equitable funding for all our schools. I will be fighting hard to also include this proposal in the Senate budget.
Additionally, the proposed Senate budget provides nearly $1 billion for unrestricted local aid, funds that cities and towns can use for any local priorities. This represents the third year in a row that unrestricted local aid has increased by at least $20 million, something that has not been accomplished in over fifteen years. Ensuring that our communities receive as much local aid as possible from the state is perennially one of my top budget priorities.
To benefit our communities, a bipartisan decision was made to have the debate over local aid figures occur earlier than the rest of the budget. This allowed the Legislature to provide final Chapter 70 and unrestricted local aid amounts to our cities and towns earlier in the year, specifically to provide our communities with greater fiscal certainty as they prepared their municipal budgets. During this earlier debate over local aid, all members of the Legislature from both political parties had ample opportunity to debate, as well as propose, consider, and vote on amendments regarding local aid. I am pleased that we were able to increase local aid for our cities and towns and provide our communities with greater certainty for their own fiscal planning for FY15.
This budget also responsibly addresses important needs for specific populations, from veterans’ services, to child welfare, to care for our seniors and those with disabilities, to substance abuse treatment and prevention. Keeping with our commitment to effective planning, our budget also makes critical investments in public transportation, public health, and public safety.
I will be offering a number of amendments to the budget to further benefit our communities and ensure wise use of our limited resources. One amendment I’m proposing is the establishment of a Government Efficiencies Commission, which would identify opportunities to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and quality of programs and services across state government. The Commission is modeled after a similar successful effort in Connecticut that resulted in $400 million in taxpayer dollars saved.
Demonstrating a commitment to transparency, I’m pleased that the full budget proposal, as well as proposed amendments, is posted online for all to see at https://malegislature.gov/Budget/FY2015/Senate. If you have questions about any particular aspects of the budget, or would like to offer any feedback on priorities that are important to you, I encourage you to contact my State House office anytime by e-mail at Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or by phone at (617) 722-1206.