The Massachusetts Senate recently debated and passed the fiscal year 2016 budget for the Commonwealth. The overarching goal of this budget is to lift all families and to invest in our future. I’m pleased that this budget is both fiscally responsible and strives to address the many important needs and concerns of our communities. As a result of strong financial management over the past decade, Massachusetts currently enjoys its highest bond rating in the state’s history as well as one of the largest stabilization funds in the nation.
The roughly $38 billion budget represents an increase of approximately 3% over FY15 spending, which is less than the anticipated growth in revenue.
One of the highest priorities in the budget is support for education and local aid. Chapter 70 education aid is increased by $111 million over this year, allowing for a minimum increase of $25 per pupil for all school districts and bringing districts like Stoneham and Wakefield closer to their target aid level. The budget fully funds the Special Education Circuit Breaker which reimburses our communities for high out-of-district special education costs. General local aid increases to $980 million, a 3.6% jump over FY15. These funds can be used for any municipal purposes, including police, fire, libraries, senior services, etc. Funding is also significantly increased for early education to reduce waiting lists and to make higher education more affordable for students and their families.
Given the scourge of opioid addiction in our region, I’m pleased that this budget commits significant resources to substance abuse treatment and prevention. This includes: providing $10 million in new funding to support the Substance Abuse Trust Fund, which funds a range of treatment services including detoxification, clinical stabilization, transitional support, residential services and outpatient treatment; adding $5 million for over 150 new clinical stabilization beds to provide additional treatment options after detoxification; providing $1.5 million for grants to school districts to hire mental health and substance abuse counselors; and establishing a new Municipal Naloxone Bulk Purchase Program to enable municipalities to purchase the lifesaving overdose reversal drug commonly referred to as Narcan at discounted rates.
The Senate’s budget also makes investments in economic development and workforce training to help low-income families become self-sufficient, get the unemployed and long-term unemployed back to work, and support sectors of the economy that drive economic growth. These investments include an expansion of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, widely considered the most effective anti-poverty program.
There are many other important needs that this budget strives to address, including healthcare, transportation, veterans services, child welfare, housing and homelessness prevention, and services for our seniors and those with disabilities.
I’m pleased to have secured a number of amendments to the budget that help fund local priorities in our district, including local infrastructure, the Mass in Motion program, Housing Families children’s program, and Stone Zoo.
I also led a successful effort on the floor of the Senate to adopt an amendment to reduce youth consumption of tobacco, specifically cheap flavored cigars. In recent years, tobacco companies have come out with new products like white grape blunts and strawberry cigarillos that enable them to get around higher cigarette taxes and flavor bans. These products seem harmless and fun to kids. As a result, sales have skyrocketed to the point that minors are now smoking cigars at equivalent or even higher rates than cigarettes. These products are just as deadly as cigarettes with the same harmful health consequences and impact on healthcare costs. My amendment closes a tax loophole that is contributing to the explosive growth in sales of these flavored cigars.
The House of Representatives and Senate have now formed a Conference Committee to iron out the differences between their respective versions of the FY16 budget. Once this process is completed later this month, the budget will then go to the Governor for his signature and possible line-item vetoes.
The full budget, including all amendments, is posted online at https://malegislature.gov/Budget/FY2016/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 me by e-mail at Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or by phone at (617) 722-1206.