SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 22, 2014

Pols load budget with pet projects, policy changes

By Christian M. Wade
Statehouse Reporter

---- — BOSTON — Putting police officers on the streets of Lawrence, boosting funds for community preservation and helping a Beverly homeless shelter are among a slew of amendments to the $36.3 billion state budget offered by local lawmakers.

Only a fraction of nearly 150 amendments filed by North Shore and Merrimack Valley lawmakers are expected to survive when the Senate votes on its budget before the Memorial Day weekend. Most will be withdrawn or consolidated by legislative leaders through a process that largely happens behind closed doors.

Local senators’ requests range from money for pet projects to changes in tax law.

Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, filed amendments seeking $100,000 for the restoration of Topsfield Town Hall; $200,000 for the North Shore Life Sciences cluster and funding for studies of postpartum depression and other mental health issues; and $200,000 for Beverly’s River House homeless shelter.

“There’s such a huge need for shelters on the North Shore,” said Kate Benashski, executive director of River House, which serves about 35 women. “We, unfortunately, have to turn away people every night. This funding would go a long way to helping with our mission.”

Sen. Bruce Tarr leads fellow lawmakers with the most proposed amendments. The Gloucester Republican, who leads the Senate’s GOP minority, has filed 101 amendments to the budget, more than any other lawmaker. Many of them call for major changes to public policy.

More on Tarr's proposed amendments

“I’m down by percentage this year, they tell me,” Tarr joked. “Last year, I was at 14 percent of the amendments filed; this year I’m around 12 percent.”

Tarr has proposed reducing the state sales tax from 6.25 to 5 percent; exempting town and city governments from gas tax increases; giving tax breaks to corporations with fewer than 25 employees; and creating a tax amnesty that allows income tax delinquents to settle up without penalty.

Tarr has also filed amendments to put the brakes on a proposed standardized test, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which school districts across the state are evaluating as a replacement for MCAS.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are expected to meet separately Tuesday to decide which of 948 budget amendments to support. Those talks occur before the Senate’s public debate begins — unlike the House, where closed-door negotiations happen during the session.

On May 1, the House passed a $36.2 billion budget that would raise spending by about 5 percent without new taxes.

Many of the latest round of budget requests aim to trim costs for cash-strapped local governments.

Sen. Kathleen O’Connor-Ives, D-Newburyport, asked for $400,000 to help pay for the Town Creek culvert project in Salisbury; $500,000 for a youth sports stadium in Methuen; and $200,000 for the Methuen rail trail project. She’s seeking several smaller grants, including $35,000 for Newburyport’s 250th Anniversary celebrations.

O’Connor-Ives also signed onto an amendment to increase funding for the Community Preservation Act, which allows cities and towns to levy a property tax surcharge up to 3 percent to support affordable housing, open space, historic preservation and recreation. Currently, 148 cities and towns have adopted the law, including North Andover and Newburyport.

“The more communities that have signed onto the CPA, it’s been harder for the state to keep up the matching funds,” O’Connor-Ives said. “This would increase program funding to get it closer to the original 50 percent match.”

Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, wants to pump another $1 million into a public safety program that pays towns and cities to hire police officers. Lawrence and Andover both hired new officers under the $6.5 million program but need to reapply for the grant every year.

“This funding is critical because these communities will be facing budget issues if they don’t get it,” Finegold said. “We need to fight for this money every year.”

In July 2010, Lawrence police lost 40 police to layoffs and deep local budget cuts. The city received $750,000 through the state grant program in 2011 and was able to rehire about a dozen officers, who it’s kept on the rolls through successive grants.

Once the Senate approves its version of Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget, a panel of House and Senate lawmakers will meet to hammer out their differences.

Both houses are calling for increased funding for the embattled Department of Children and Families to reduce the caseload carried by social workers. The House budget includes a mandate that social workers be licensed within a year.

The deaths of three children have led to heightened scrutiny of the agency, and Patrick recently accepted the resignation of former commissioner Olga Roche.

Tarr has filed several amendments to improve oversight of DCF. They include fingerprinting and national background checks for adoptive parents, as well as a requirement that the agency file quarterly reports on the number of children under its care who are missing.

Good government groups say the Legislature shouldn’t be using the budget process to get bills approved.

“By tacking it onto the budget, you’re bypassing the traditional process where bills are brought up for a hearing, where they’re debated and have to go through a series of votes,” said Deirdre Cummings, legislative affairs director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. “Using the budget to pass these unrelated items just shouldn’t be allowed.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News. He can be reached at cwade@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cmwade1969.