Mass. House debates $46B budget plan

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

Associated Press
Published: 11/10/2020 6:54:42 PM

BOSTON — The Massachusetts House launched debate Tuesday on a long-overdue $46 billion state budget plan that would avoid new broad-based taxes while dipping even deeper into the state’s rainy day fund than what Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed.

Democratic House leaders said the budget will focus on areas like supporting students during the pandemic, enhancing food security and boosting substance addiction services, domestic violence and sexual assault treatment and prevention, and legal assistance.

Action on the budget was delayed by the onset of the coronavirus in the spring. Typically the new state budget is approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor by the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

But efforts to rein in the spread of the virus pushed back work on the budget and forced the state to rely on temporary interim budgets until a final spending plan is approved.

In an unusual move, Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo is backing the addition of a policy amendment to the budget that seeks to codify abortion rights into state law.

“It is urgent that the House take up an immediate measure to remove barriers to women’s reproductive health options and protect the concepts enshrined in Roe v. Wade,” DeLeo said in a statement Monday.

DeLeo and Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka had issued a joint statement last saying they “are very concerned that Massachusetts’ women’s reproductive rights are under threat at the national level,” indicating both chambers would seek to include similar language in their budget proposals.

The measure would let women obtain an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases of “fatal fetal anomalies.” Current state law allows abortions after 24 weeks only to preserve the life or health of the mother. It would also establish a process for teens under 16 to obtain an abortion without the permission of a parent.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has said he opposes late-term abortions and supports current Massachusetts abortion laws.

Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons faulted DeLeo and Spilka for pushing the amendment.

“For them to decide that the height of an emergency health pandemic is a good time to do something like this is absolutely disturbing,” Lyons said in a press release.

The House budget also aims to increase assistance to renters, many of whom have struggled during the pandemic. The plan would restrain courts from finalizing evictions if a tenant has a pending application for rental assistance. It would also increase funding for a rental support program by $50 million.

Baker last month also unveiled a $171 million initiative that he said will help tenants and landlords cope with the fiscal challenges of the ongoing pandemic. A temporary state ban on evictions and foreclosures expired last month.

The House budget proposal would withdraw about $1.55 billion from the state’s rainy day fund. That would leave the account with just under $2 billion in reserves.

The withdrawal is $200 million more than what was recommended by Baker when he unveiled his budget proposal last month. The withdrawal is needed to help the state cope with a plunge in tax revenues when many businesses were forced to close their doors during the early weeks and months of the pandemic.

With several hundred amendments to wade through, the House budget debate could take several days, although it is expected to wrap up this week.

Baker restarted the budget process last month by submitting a new spending plan for the current 2021 fiscal year that started July 1. Baker said he hopes to have a budget plan back from lawmakers by Thanksgiving.

The Senate is scheduled to begin their budget debate next week.

Much of the House debate was being conducted virtually. During a typical House budget debate, all 160 House members, staffers, lobbyists, members of the public, and reporters would be crowded into the Statehouse.


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