May 03, 2011
BOSTON — After weeks of debate, compromise and some sacrifice, local state representatives say they are pleased with the $30.51 billion budget the House passed Thursday.
The budget passed 157-1, with only Rep. James Lyons, R-Andover, voting in opposition.
“Of the seven budgets I’ve been involved in, this was probably the most bipartisan and the least amount of disagreement,” said Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem. “We had a few fights, but we always do. I think we all came to the table and realized we had a huge gap — about $1.9 billion — and worked toward doing that.”
Despite cuts on virtually every line item in the budget, Keenan said it was a “good, strong budget” and had reduced spending over the previous year.
Other area representatives from both parties echoed his sentiments.
“As Republicans, we were happy to see that, as an institution, we didn’t just continue to spend, spend, spend,” said Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich. “We recognized we can’t continue to keep spending the way we’ve been spending, at unsustainable levels.”
The biggest story of the budget was the reform to municipal employee health care. Under the House plan, the municipalities would be able to alter copayments and fees provided they are not more expensive than the largest subscriber plan offered by the state-run Group Insurance Commission.
The budget bill gives towns the option of participating.
It also provides the municipalities the ability to make plan changes, provided the unions see a return of 10 percent of the savings into health-related programs. If negotiations are not finished within 30 days, the plan goes into effect without changes, but the employees would share 20 percent of the savings.
Although unions protested these changes, Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, said he thought it was fair for public employees to have to deal with higher costs, too.
“If 99 percent of society is living with this, I think that 1 percent that has been exempt from those increases has to share in that,” Speliotis said.
Minority Leader Rep. Brad Jones, R-Reading, agreed, saying that savings for municipalities will help avoid layoffs of the same people who were protesting the changes.
“The reason for the vast majority of people who were supportive (of the reform) was to preserve jobs which were primarily, and in some communities exclusively, union positions,” Jones said.
The $100 million in estimated municipal savings from these new powers is meant to offset some of the damage caused by $65 million in local aid cuts.
Although all the representatives expressed regret at the cut, they pointed to a new amendment that could assist the municipalities in the coming months.
Half of any unspent state capital at the end of fiscal 2012 — known as reversions — would be put toward further aid to municipalities. The amount is capped at $65 million and would be available sometime in October, Hill said.
“Many of us, me included, feel very strongly that local aid needs to be a top priority, and with the cuts we’ve seen, we needed to address it,” he said.
Jones agreed, saying, “As revenues continue to increase, we need to recognize some of that money should go back to the taxpayers.”
Despite the cut to local aid, Chapter 70 aid for education was increased $120 million over last year’s contribution.
Speliotis and Keenan both championed $400,000 in funding for Advanced Placement Programs in schools, Keenan said.
“That is going a long way to close the achievement gap, which is certainly one of the goals of the president and the governor,” Keenan said.
Adult day programs, threatened with crippling budget cuts in the governor’s budget, released two months ago, received level funding in the House budget. Hill said it was a particularly important issue for his region because of an adult center in Beverly. Other representatives agreed.
“Those programs are really important because they allow people to stay in their homes,” said Rep. Joyce Spiliotis, D-Peabody.
Other items in the budget that energized the lawmakers included the introduction of restrictions on purchases of alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets for electronic benefit transfer cardholders using welfare money, noted by Jones and Hill. Keenan, a former Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development chairman, said he was proud of a $5 million increase for regional tourism councils from only $1 million.
Although the representatives were happy with their version of the budget, they will see a new Senate version in a few weeks, which may change the level of support.
“The Senate is going to have a process, and we’re going have to wait until it comes back,” Jones said. “It could be wildly and dramatically different when it comes back.”
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