By Christian M. Wade
Breaking a nearly three-week impasse, lawmakers agreed Wednesday to a $41.8 billion budget that jettisoned dozens of proposed policy changes that had snarled negotiations, including a plan to curb state cooperation with federal immigration crackdowns.
The spending bill, which was approved by House and Senate Wednesday, includes more state money for local governments and schools, transportation and substance abuse programs. It bumps up the state's reserve fund to nearly $2 billion without raising taxes or cutting public services.
A half-dozen House and Senate members met behind closed doors for weeks in an attempt to work out differences in two versions of the budget.
"This budget supports the most vulnerable among us and ensures that our economy grows for the benefit of all residents," House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez, D-Jamaica Plain, told reporters at a briefing. "It also reflects our continued belief that we have a responsibility to be careful stewards of taxpayer dollars."
The House passed the budget 143-6. The Senate followed with a 36-1 vote.
Massachusetts was the last state to finalize a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Two weeks ago, Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders agreed to a $5 million supplemental budget to keep state government running until the end of this month.
While their totals were not far apart, lawmakers were deeply divided over details and policy provisions tacked onto the spending bills. The final version does not include more than 150 policy changes including proposals aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants.
Among them was an amendment by Sánchez, incoming Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and other Democrats that would have prevented state resources from being used to enforce federal immigration law and prohibited state and local police from inquiring about a suspect's immigration status.
The Senate included that provision in its version of the budget, but the House did not. Ultimately, the proposal was dropped.
Immigrant rights groups accused lawmakers of succumbing to "fear-mongering about 'sanctuary' policies."
"The Legislature had a prime opportunity to stand up for civil rights and human decency, and under political pressure from Gov. Baker and conservative Democrats, it backed down," Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said in a statement.
"The safety and well-being of tens of thousands of immigrant families will suffer as a result," she added.
Democrat Jay Gonzalez, who is seeking his party's nomination to challenge Baker in November, also criticized lawmakers for rejecting those provisions.
"Massachusetts needs to stand up and fight against these policies, not be complicit in them," he said. "We need elected leaders who will see the value of every single person and work to strengthen our communities, not weaken them."
Rep. Juana Matias, D-Lawrence, joined several Republicans in voting against the budget.
She cited the bill's lack of protections for immigrants.
"At a time when Donald Trump and the GOP are tearing apart families and terrorizing our immigrant communities, we in Massachusetts have the opportunity to fight back and stand with our immigrant neighbors," Matias said in a statement. "Instead ... the Legislature has caved into the fear mongering that has become all too common in our politics."
Overall, the compromise budget would increase spending by nearly $400 million over previous versions of the plan.
Unlike previous years, when the state has faced deep shortfalls, it ended the most recent fiscal year with a surplus of more than $1.2 billion.
Under the latest spending plan, education funding will amount to more than $4.9 billion.
Money for cities and towns will be more than $1.09 billion.
While the plan doesn't increase taxes, it calls for a new $2 fee on rental cars that would be used to fund municipal police training programs.
It also increases the state's earned income tax credit from 23 percent to 30 percent of the federal credit, which would help many low- to middle-income families, and it eliminates a practice of denying additional welfare benefits to children born to parents who are already getting assistance.
The agreement would also make daily fantasy sports permanently legal, though proposed rules and taxes are still being considered.
Lawmakers were given little time to review the budget. The final version was filed with House and Senate clerks Wednesday morning, leaving them only a few hours to thumb through the 331-page document before voting.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr sought unsuccessfully to delay a vote, saying lawmakers needed more time to review it. The Gloucester Republican voted for the plan but not before giving fellow senators an earful.
"It's taken literally a couple months to produce this document and it contains roughly $42 billion in state spending," he said in a speech in Senate chambers ahead of the vote. "We need sufficient time to understand all of the contents of the budget."
Baker now has 10 days to review the budget and make vetoes.
(c)2018 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.)