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Lawmakers Approve $34B Mass. Budget

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BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts lawmakers approved a $34 billion state budget that includes additional aid for cities and towns and enough funding for the University of Massachusetts to avoid a tuition increase in the upcoming academic year.

The House voted 123-29 and the Senate 36-3 on Monday to accept a compromise budget agreed to by House and Senate negotiators after several weeks of closed-door negotiations to resolve differences between versions that passed earlier in both chambers.

The state’s new fiscal year began at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, but the state is operating on a stopgap budget and likely will continue to do so for several more days while Gov. Deval Patrick reviews the spending plan and decides on which portions he will exercise his line-item veto power.

The budget relies in part on $500 million in new taxes, including hikes in gasoline and cigarette taxes, which were approved in a separate transportation finance bill now on the Patrick’s desk. Republicans cited the tax increase in voting against the compromise spending plan.

The budget calls for a $21 million hike in unrestricted aid for the state’s cities and towns and a nearly $110 million increase in so-called Chapter 70 assistance for public schools.

Budget negotiators resolved one key area of difference by adopting the House appropriation of $479 million for the University of Massachusetts. The Senate had approved $455 million for the school.

University trustees had authorized a 4.9 percent hike in tuition had the Legislature agreed on the lower Senate figure, but the final budget “will allow UMass to freeze tuition and mandatory fees for in-state students, while at the same time continuing to provide the high level of academic quality that our students deserve and expect,” university president Robert Caret said in a statement Monday.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, noted that other state colleges and universities would also see increased funding.

“We believe that we need to invest in higher education. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for (Massachusetts) and we are proud of this proposal,” Dempsey said.

The budget also includes $15 million in funding for early childhood education, which, according to lawmakers, will take about 2,000 children off the waiting list for income-eligible child care.

The spending plan adds more than $6 million to provide home care services for an additional 1,500 elderly residents and maintains 45 mental health beds at the Taunton State Hospital, despite calls from the Patrick administration to close the aging hospital and transfer patients to other facilities.

The state would be authorized to tap its stabilization fund, better known as the rainy day fund, for $350 million in the new fiscal year. But legislative leaders said the fund would retain a balance of more than $1.5 billion even after the transfer.

Legislative leaders have defended the proposed tax increases as reasonable given Patrick’s earlier request for $1.9 billion in new taxes. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Monday he did not anticipate the need for any further tax increase next year.

Noah Berger, president of the independent Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, noted that while the budget restores funding that has been slashed in several key areas in recent years, higher education remains 25 percent below and higher education 44 percent below 2001 levels after being adjusted for inflation.

Patrick has promised to return the transportation finance bill to the Legislature with an amendment to address the loss of revenue that will occur when tolls are removed from the western portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike in 2017. Dempsey told reporters the House would consider whatever amendment the governor proposed, but also indicated that House leaders were confident that if the amendment was rejected and the governor then vetoed the bill, there would be enough votes to override.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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