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Western Mass. state lawmakers discuss priorities amid overdue budget talks

The Massachusetts state capitol in Boston
WAMC/Ian Pickus
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WAMC/Ian Pickus
The Massachusetts state capitol in Boston

With an interim budget in place and not much planned on Beacon Hill this week, lawmakers in Massachusetts expect work to pick up soon as the end of the session looms. The new fiscal year started Monday, but the budget is still being negotiated, as are a number of bills that have the attention of elected officials across western Massachusetts.

A $6.9 billion interim budget is keeping the Bay State operating as lawmakers get closer to passing a full spending plan – as well as some of the legislature’s big-ticket items before the end of July.

July 31 marks the end of the formal session before things turn informal. Just one lawmaker can block any piece of legislation during that time.

Before that, a conference committee is expected to finalize a marriage of the House’s budget passed in Apriland the Senate’s passed in May – both coming in around $58 billion each.

Packed into it are a number of items lawmakers in the Pioneer Valley are hoping to see cross the finish line.

“There's a plethora of items and there's some big picture stuff - our continued commitment to universal school meals - this is transformational for families across the Commonwealth,” says 7th Hampden Representative Aaron Saunders.

The House version of the bill appears to pack $190 million for reimbursing schools providing universal free meals to students – a program the Healey administration calls a success.

Officials announced 61,500 more students ate lunch every school day during the first year of permanent universal free school meals in 2022 - compared to 2018, a time before its implementation and pre-pandemic.

The Senate version appeared to have $170 million tagged for the program, in addition to over $117 million for what’s being called “MassEducate” – the free community college program. 

The item’s been championed by Senate President Karen Spilka of Framingham, along with Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester Senator Jo Comerford, who chairs the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

With no similar item in the House version of the bill, it’s not immediately clear how the effort to cover community college tuition and fees for all residents might shake out in a merger of the two budgets.

Regardless, with items like $120 million for Regional Transit Funding and Grants and $125 million for Roads and Bridges Supplemental Aid – including over $62 million for local road funds through a formula that quote “recognizes the unique transportation issues faced by rural communities” — Comerford says areas like the Pioneer Valley stand to benefit during an otherwise lean year.

“It’s funny, because when the budget came out., Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, who's a great friend to Western Massachusetts, said ‘You know, who loves this budget? Everybody outside of Boston.’” Comerford told WAMC during a phone interview. “I imagine that that's music to the ears of folks in Western Mass, who often feel like Boston doesn't create policy or budgets that work for us”

Comerford’s office also highlighted over a million dollars’ worth of items for her district, including $350,000 to support the Seven Sisters Midwifery in Florence — the only free-standing birth center in the state.

Whether it’s Hampden Senator Adam Gomez securing $250,000 for young parent support services in Springfield or Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester Senator Jake Oliveira getting an amendment to increase local aid for public libraries by over $2 million – what gets hammered out in a matter of days or weeks remains a bit up in the air. 

The budget’s also far from being the only piece of legislation left to be tackled. Both chambers have versions of a massive housing bond bill that still need to be rectified. There’s also a conference committee has been spending months on a firearms reform bill that addresses ghost guns and other gun-related matters.

“We have gun control legislation, we have an economic development bill, we have a climate bill, we have a hospital relief bill, we have a prescription drug bill,” Oliveira says. “There are many things that we need to resolve in the few short weeks that we have left in the session, but obviously the $58 billion budget is the big-ticket item.”