Massachusetts House Democrats on Wednesday unveiled a $56.2 billion budget plan for the next fiscal year. The plan proposes that the state use money from the new millionaires tax to fund free school meals and authorize online lottery sales to help keep child care providers afloat.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, whose panel drafted the latest version of the budget, said its goal is to make sure the state’s economy can remain strong while still coping with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As our revenue growth begins to slow, and as the COVID-19 era federal programs begin to end, we as a commonwealth must determine how to continue to meet the needs of our residents,” Michlewitz said. “This budget aims to do that with historic investments in housing, education and workforce development — all while keeping Massachusetts a competitive economic engine.”
The House’s proposal represents a 5.6% spending increase over this year’s budget and differs in several ways from the $55.5 billion version Gov. Maura Healey offered last month. Its bottom line will likely grow further when the bill is debated the week of April 24, as representatives adopt amendments and earmark money for local projects.
The House is eyeing a different approach from Healey in what to do with the $1 billion in revenue anticipated from the tax on million dollar-plus incomes, which voters approved at the ballot last fall to generate new funds for education and transportation.
Healey wanted to use some of the millionaires tax money to lock in tuition rates at state universities, an idea dropped from the House plan. Meanwhile, House Democrats want to put $161 million of the surtax revenue toward making school meals permanently free in Massachusetts, which wasn’t in Healey’s budget.
The federal government picked up the cost of school meals early in the pandemic, and Massachusetts has used state dollars to continue offering free school breakfasts and lunch since then.
House Speaker Ron Mariano, a former Quincy teacher, said Massachusetts would become the fifth state to permanently adopt the free school meals program.
"Having spent 12 years in a classroom, I can't stress how important this is," Mariano said. "To know that every student in Massachusetts will not go to school hungry or spend a school day without anything to eat has to ease the mind of all the teachers out there who have to face these kids who can't focus because they left the house without breakfast."
Other items in the House budget include:
- Authorization for the state lottery to sell tickets and games online. Revenue from online lottery sales would support stabilization grants for child care providers, a sector hard hit by the pandemic’s upheaval.
- The return of a pandemic-era protection that paused eviction cases for tenants with pending applications for emergency rental assistance. State lawmakers let that temporary policy lapse at the end of March — but the House is proposing to revive it and make it permanent.
- $700 million for environment and climate related initiatives across 15 different agencies, representing 1.25% of the total budget.
- A requirement for free phone calls in state prisons run by the Department of Correction and jails run by county sheriffs. That’s an expansion from Healey’s version, which proposed the requirement only for the Department of Correction and capped free calls at 1,000 minutes per month. The House’s language does not cap minutes or calls.
Where the budget goes from here
Developing a state budget is a monthslong process on Beacon Hill. After the House passes its budget this month, the Senate will revise it and vote on its own version in May. The two legislative branches must agree on a final version before they can send one to Healey.
A completed budget is due by July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. For the past several years, closed door House-Senate negotiations have stretched beyond that deadline, and the state typically adopts temporary budgets to keep government running until lawmakers reach a deal.
Before budget debate kicks off in the House later this month, representatives will file hundreds of amendments. The first one offered is a light-hearted amendment from Lenox Democrat Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, which would call on the House to “serve as an example for state legislatures across the country by embodying the spirit of fictional character Ted Lasso.”
That means, according to the text of Pignatelli’s amendment, treating others with compassion, striving to do the right thing, believing in the kindness of strangers, and “channel[ing] the 10-second memory of a goldfish” when things go wrong.