LEGISLATIVE BUDGET writers vastly increased their estimate of how much tax revenue the state will get next year in order to fund the priorities of both the House and Senate in a $52.7 billion fiscal 2023 state budget that was released from conference committee Sunday evening.
The House and Senate could vote on the budget as soon as Monday, sending it to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk. The fiscal year began July 1, and lawmakers are under time pressure to give Baker ten days to review the budget while still allowing themselves time to override any potential vetoes before formal legislative sessions end July 31.
In fiscal 2022, the state ended the year with an estimated surplus of more than $3 billion due to higher-than-expected tax revenues. That allowed the conferees to increase the amount of revenue they used to build the 2023 budget by $2.66 billion. The budget that emerged from the committee of House-Senate negotiators was $52.7 billion, higher than the initial budgets that were passed by the House and Senate, both of which were a little under $50.5 billion.
All six members of the conference committee – four Democrats and two Republicans – signed off on the compromise.
Baker has throughout his term promised local officials that he would fund municipal governments at a rate that increased as tax revenue increased. But some local officials had complained that if tax revenues came in higher than expected during the year, municipalities did not get that additional money. This budget would provide $1.23 billion to municipalities, an increase of $63.1 million over the current year and twice the amount that Baker initially proposed, reflecting the higher revenue estimate.
With the extra money, in many cases where an item was only funded in either the House or Senate budget, the conference committee was able to fund it. These range from an extra $6 million to fund early voting to an extra $10 million in a line item compensating communities for state-owned land.
Lawmakers also adopted a new $266 million fund to address safety and workplace issues at the MBTA, which would be used to address issues uncovered by the Federal Transit Administration’s recent review.
The Senate got one of its major priorities in the creation of a $20 million fund for behavioral health investments.
Lawmakers agreed to spend $250 million to continue the C3 grant program, which has provided operational support to all childcare centers throughout the pandemic, through December 2022, while also increasing the rates paid to childcare centers that accept children with state subsidies.
There are some additional programs intended to bolster workforces in industries that it need it, like a loan forgiveness program for mental health workers, increased rates for home health aides, and a $15 million line item to boost diversity among teachers.
In policy matters, the House budget would have required sheriffs to provide incarcerated people with free phone calls. The final language in the conference committee budget requires sheriffs and state prisons to provide free phone calls, and creates a $20 million fund that will use state money to reimburse the cost of the calls.
The budget also authorizes spending $110 million to provide universal free school meals to all children next year regardless of income, extending a federal program that was in place to help families during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also $115 million to expand a “breakfast after the bell” program.
The budget adopts provisions banning child marriage for anyone under age 18.
Several abortion-related provisions were not released from the conference committee because lawmakers are considering them as part of separate bills. But the budget does provide $2 million for security at abortion clinics.
Lawmakers also agreed to a two-year pilot program that will expand eligibility for ConnectorCare, or state-subsidized health insurance, to individuals earning less than 500 percent of the federal poverty level, about $68,000 a year for an individual. This would make an estimated 37,000 more people eligible for subsidized insurance. Theodore Calianos, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, called this “an important resource that will allow more of our patients to have high-quality insurance while reducing out-of-pocket costs at a time in which so many individuals and families need help.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to note that the budget requires sheriffs to provide no-cost calls to inmates.