Massachusetts Lawmakers Approve Deal On Overdue Budget

Jul 18, 2018

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Eighteen days into the state's new fiscal year, lawmakers on Wednesday approved a $41.9 billion budget, breaking an impasse that has left Massachusetts the only U.S. state without a permanent spending plan.

The compromise would increase the total size of the budget by more than $600 million over earlier versions of the plan, thanks to higher revenue projections after Massachusetts ended its most recent fiscal year with a more than $1 billion surplus.

The six-member conference committee that labored behind closed doors for weeks to arrive on the compromise dropped Senate-approved immigration language from the final agreement, angering immigrant advocacy groups that had pushed for stronger protections.

The chief House and Senate budget negotiators, Democratic Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, of Boston, and Democratic Sen. Karen Spilka, of Ashland, said in a joint statement that the budget deal "supports the most vulnerable amongst us, and ensures our economy grows for the benefit of all residents."

Hours after the agreement was announced, the full House voted 143-6 to accept it. That was followed by a 36-1 vote in the Senate. Both chambers set aside rules that require at least a one-day wait before a conference committee report can be debated.

Massachusetts will continue to operate on a stopgap budget while Republican Gov. Charlie Baker reviews the spending plan. He has up to 10 days to sign the bill and issue any line-item vetoes.

The administration had no immediate comment on the agreement, which allows for $340 million in spending above previously agreed upon levels, along with an additional $271 million deposit to the state's reserves, often called the rainy day fund.

Legislative leaders did not point to any single factor that held up the budget talks, though the immigration debate may have been a sticking point.

The Senate amendment called for limiting cooperation between Massachusetts law enforcement agencies and federal immigration officials, and largely prohibiting police from inquiring about an individual's immigration status.

Sanchez, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said there wasn't a meeting of the minds among lawmakers on the amendment.

"I'm a full supporter of it," he said. "At the same time ... it's up to me to make sure I try to find consensus and when it came to those provisions, none of us could find consensus."

The Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Coalition said it was "deeply disappointed" with the decision to exclude the language, blaming it on "political pressure" from Baker and conservative Democrats.

"We find it shocking that, with this agreement, the Legislature has tacitly accepted the notion that police should be able to ask people who 'look foreign' to show their papers before they can report a crime, and that immigrants should be kept in the dark about their legal rights, so it's easier to deport them," said Eva Millona, director of the coalition, in a statement.

Democratic Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who sponsored the immigration proposal, cast the lone no vote against the budget, calling it "shameful" that the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature did not come to the aid of immigrants who fear deportation under the policies of President Donald Trump's administration.

Critics of the proposal, including Baker, warned it would move Massachusetts too far in the direction of becoming a so-called "sanctuary state" for immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

The compromise budget calls for an independent audit of the Massachusetts State Police, which has been buffeted by allegations of overtime abuse and other disclosures, including the alteration of an arrest report for the daughter of a judge.

The state's earned income tax credit for low-income families would be increased and the budget eliminates on Jan. 1 the "family cap" a longstanding rule that denies additional welfare benefits to children born to parents already on public assistance.

The agreement also makes daily fantasy sports permanently legal in Massachusetts, but without proposed regulations and taxes still being considered by lawmakers.

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