The Senate passed a $39.558 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2017, investing in key areas related to local aid, education, children’s health and safety, housing, health and human services, workforce training and economic development. The budget limits the use of one-time revenue sources and directs $211M to the state’s Stabilization Fund to continue to rebuild this financial safety net, an ongoing Senate priority.
“This budget is fiscally responsible while delivering resources to programs and policies that make this a great Commonwealth for our children and families,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “I’m pleased that we agreed as a body on strong investments in education, including early and higher education, public housing, health and human services, and initiatives addressing substance abuse.”
The Senate’s budget takes a holistic approach to early childhood education and care and elementary and secondary education, with a focus on building family and community relationships. The budget includes: $4.63B in Chapter 70 education aid, a $116.1M increase benefiting every school district, including a minimum increase of $55 per pupil and 85% effort reduction; $10M for salary increases to early education providers; $2.5M for Youth At-Risk Matching Grants to community youth organizations, including Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs; $2M for new preschool expansion grants to expand high-quality preschool programs that prepare young children for future educational success; and, $750K for the Mentoring Matching Grant program.
The Senate included landmark language to overhaul the Chapter 70 formula to fund Massachusetts school districts more fairly and adequately in the future. As recommended by the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) last year, the new formula better accounts for school districts’ rising health insurance costs and the high cost of educating students with special needs, English Language Learners and low-income students. The budget also establishes a taskforce to identify the most accurate way of counting low-income students and requires the House, Senate and Administration to determine a schedule for funding the FBRC’s recommendations. The FBRC was enacted due to budget language Senator Lewis championed in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.
The Senate’s budget invests in the 351 cities and towns across the Commonwealth to strengthen local services and build healthy, safe and resilient communities, through funding including: $1.02B for Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) for municipal investments in education, public safety, roads and bridges and health care; $281.1M to fully fund the Special Education Circuit Breaker to reimburse school districts for high costs of educating students with disabilities at the full 75% reimbursement rate; $90M to mitigate the financial impact on school districts when students leave to attend charter schools; $84.1M for Regional Transit Authorities; $61M for Regional School Transportation reimbursements to offset 73% of the transportation costs of students attending regional schools; $15M for the Massachusetts Cultural Council to support the state’s thriving creative economy; and, $8M for Shannon Grants for gang violence prevention and intervention programs.
The Senate budget also invests in children’s mental health, safety and welfare in an effort to ensure all children grow up in a supportive environment. Among the investments made in this budget on behalf of children’s welfare include: $223.5M for Department of Children and Families Social Workers, allowing DCF to hire an additional 100 social workers and 125 social worker technicians, moving closer to an 18:1 caseload ratio; $88.2M for Children’s Mental Health Services, including $3.6M for the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project and $50K for an Early Childhood Mental Health Partnership; $12.5M for Family Resource Centers providing crucial mental health, substance abuse treatment and family support services; and, $1M for the Office of the Child Advocate and language to increase its independence to further its mission to protect the health, safety and well-being of children under the care of the Commonwealth.
In order to strengthen families, the Senate’s budget invests in programs to connect individuals, families and vulnerable populations with housing and supportive services, including: $100M for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, allowing for 350 to 400 new rental assistance vouchers; $44.8M for assistance for homeless individuals; $13M for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, including $500K to serve families with children under the age of 21, elders, persons with disabilities and unaccompanied youth; $6.2M for the Alternative Housing Voucher Program to provide nearly 200 new vouchers for low income people with disabilities and help them transition from nursing homes to independent housing; and, $2M for housing and supportive services for unaccompanied homeless youth.
The Senate’s budget increases funding for health and human services in a range of areas to improve access to high quality health care and enhance services for individuals with disabilities, seniors, and other vulnerable groups that are often under-served. This targeted effort includes: $136.4M for substance abuse prevention and treatment, allowing for 150 new residential treatment beds and other lifesaving programs, and $2M for the Substance Abuse Services Trust Fund supporting detox, clinical stabilization, residential treatment, outpatient treatment and counseling services; $28.1M for Elder Protective Services to enhance efforts to investigate cases of elder abuse or neglect; $20.5M for wages for direct care staff of nursing homes; $14.1M for local Councils on Aging, increasing the formula grant to $10 per senior per year and strengthening local senior center community programming and services; $13.9M to fully fund Turning 22 Services for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, and $8M for the Department of Developmental Services Turning 22 program to help young people with disabilities transition to the adult services system; and, $1.1M for a pilot program to expand eligibility for the state’s home care program to support more seniors aging in place.
The Senate’s budget also makes targeted investments to support low income families and promote self-sufficiency, including: an increase in the Department of Transitional Assistance clothing allowance from $200 per child to $250 per child; $2.6M for a new transportation benefit for approximately 10,000 participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Employment and Training Program; and, $18M for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program. The budget invests $1M in a new common application portal to help families enroll in MassHealth, SNAP nutrition and other state benefits in one streamlined process.
Of particularly importance to communities north of Boston relying on the MBTA for subway, bus, and commuter rail public transportation services, the Senate also adopted an amendment limiting MBTA fare increases to 5% every two years to ensure Massachusetts residents have access to affordable public transportation. In impassioned remarks on the Senate floor while debating this provision, Senator Jason Lewis stressed, “We should not balance the MBTA budget on the backs of the ridership. Public transportation must be kept affordable.”
Continuing the Senate’s ongoing criminal justice reform efforts, the budget includes several investments and policy initiatives to improve access to justice, including $1.2M to expand the Housing Court to serve all residents across the state, $18M for civil legal aid for low income residents and $1.5M for Prisoners’ Legal Services. The budget also waives probation fees for juvenile offenders and gives judges the discretion to impose probation fees for other offenders.
The budget invests in workforce training, economic development and public higher education to prepare Massachusetts students and residents to join the workforce and ensure the Commonwealth’s economy continues to grow and lead. Investments in this area include: $521.3M for the University of Massachusetts, a $20.5M increase over FY 2016 funding, in addition to the new flexibility provided by tuition retention; $281.7M for the fifteen community colleges and $258.4M for the nine state universities across the Commonwealth, reflecting a combined increase of $24.4M over FY 2016 funding levels; $31M for the Adult Basic Education program to reduce the waitlist for adult education and connect adults with skills they need to join the workforce; $11.5M for wages for the Youth-At-Risk Summer Jobs program and $3.2M for School to Career Connecting Activities, a public-private partnership linking high school students with job training and mentoring opportunities; $4M for Workforce Competitiveness Grants for training and education for unemployed and under-employed workers; $3M for the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to foster a favorable environment for the development and growth of technology and innovation clusters across the state; and, $350K for a new public-private partnership matching grant program to establish college savings accounts for children in grades 7 through 12, encouraging low income students to pursue higher education and helping to close income and racial educational attainment gaps.
The Senate budget also includes a provision to move the state into compliance with the federal REAL ID law, allowing Massachusetts residents to access federal buildings and board airplanes after the state’s waiver expires in October. The Senate also passed an amendment to allocate $300,000 in matching funds for the federal Bulletproof Vest Partnership grant program.
Additionally, Senator Jason Lewis was able to secure a number of amendments to protect or strengthen funding in key areas, including: protecting level funding for the Mass in Motion program; increasing funding to protect at-risk seniors; increasing the allocation to Zoo New England, the non-profit that runs Stoneham’s Stone Zoo, an important regional institution; and, protecting funding for the Safe and Supportive Schools program. Further, Senator Lewis led the effort on successful amendments: to establish an Office of Health Equity, to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities in the Commonwealth; to delay implementation of health safety net eligibility changes until April 1, 2017; to mandate gender equity in the premiums, benefits, and other terms of disability insurance policies; and, to impose a fine on utility companies for the lack of removal within 90 days of a “double pole” when a new utility pole is installed.
A Conference Committee will now work out the differences between the Senate budget and the version passed by the House of Representatives in April. Fiscal Year 2017 begins on July 1, 2016.