BOSTON – Breaking a three-week impasse, lawmakers agreed Monday to a $43.1 billion budget after jettisoning dozens of proposed policy changes that had snarled negotiations, including a proposed tax on opioid manufacturers.

The spending bill, which was approved Monday by the state House and Senate in whirlwind sessions, includes more money for local governments and schools, transportation and substance abuse programs. It also bumps up the state's reserve fund to more than $3 billion without raising taxes or cutting public services.

A six-member committee of House and Senate lawmakers met behind closed doors for weeks in an attempt to work out differences in two versions of the budget.

Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, D-Boston, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the fiscal 2020 spending package was "balanced and fiscally responsible."

"Overall, this budget makes targeted investments in key elements including education, housing and family planning," Michlewitz told lawmakers ahead of Monday's vote.

Massachusetts was the last state with an annual budget due July 1 to approve a spending plan – for the second year in a row. Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders agreed to a $5 million supplemental budget in later June to keep state government running until the end of this month.

The compromise budget would increase spending by nearly $317 million above previous House and Senate versions of the plan.

While their totals were not far apart, lawmakers from both chambers were divided over details and policy provisions tacked onto the spending bills.

The final version does not include more than 80 policy changes including Baker's proposals to impose a 15% tax on opioid manufacturers, extend the tobacco excise tax to vaping products and hike the tax on real estate transactions by 50% to help fund climate change preparations.

Locally, lawmakers also ditched a proposal from Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, to create a Merrimack River District Commission to better monitor pollution going into the river.

The committee did, however, agree to include portions of Baker's proposal aimed at reducing prescription drug costs through MassHealth, the state's Medicaid program that serves about 1.8 million low-income residents.

A provision of the final spending plan would authorize the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to negotiate supplemental rebates with drug manufacturers. The reworked plan does not require drug makers to participate in public hearings or turn over disputes on drug pricing to the attorney general for investigation, as Baker had requested.

Amy Rosenthal, executive director of the nonprofit Health Care For All, called the plan "a major step forward for reining in the cost of prescription drugs" in the MassHealth program.

"The Legislature has created an important process that will save money for the MassHealth program, the state and taxpayers while also protecting the 1.8 million residents who rely on the MassHealth program for their health care," Rosenthal said.

The final budget also includes the House version of a proposal to allow wholesale dealers to process unfrozen lobsters and import unfrozen shell-on lobster parts, and allow for sale of processed lobster. The law now requires lobstermen and seafood dealers to sell or transport lobster out of the state for processing for parts.

"By modernizing these lobster laws we bolster the fishing industry, give consumers more choices, and sustainably support coastal fishing communities," said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester.

While lawmakers dropped a proposed tuition freeze for students attending the five-campus University of Massachusetts system, they did increase funding for local community colleges.

North Shore Community College will get more than $23 million while Northern Essex Community College will get more than $21 million, both of which are higher than Baker's proposal.

Overall, Chapter 70 education funding for public schools will amount to more than $5.1 billion this fiscal year -- a nearly $270 million increase over the previous year.

Direct aid to local governments -- money that cities and towns use for everything from closing local budget shortfalls to hiring workers -- will be more than $1.12 billion, a nearly $30 million increase. Most communities will see slight increases in funding if Baker agrees to the final local aid allocations.

Lawrence would get an additional $548,140, bringing its allocation to more than $20.8 million. Haverhill will see a $274,377 boost, bringing its annual total to more than $10.4 million.

Salem stands to receive a $192,581 increase to $7.3 million; Gloucester would get a $111,497 increase to more than $4.2 million; and Newburyport would get an increase of $71,200 to more than $2.7 million.

Lawmakers were given little time to review the budget. The final version was filed with House and Senate clerks late Sunday, leaving them only a few hours to thumb through the 336-page plan before voting.

"I would hope, in the future, that we could have another day or two to be able to digest some of these things that we care about before we take a vote on it," Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, the House's assistant minority leader, told lawmakers ahead of the vote.

Baker now has 10 days to review the budget and make vetoes, but lawmakers have more than enough votes to override any of his actions.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

Recommended for you