Lawmakers in the Berkshires are reacting to the fiscal year 2014 budget signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on Friday.
Last week, Governor Patrick signed a $33.6 billion state budget into law. Patrick’s initial budget proposal called for significant investments in education, which lawmakers in the Berkshires supported.
State Representative Paul Mark of Peru, a Democrat who serves as Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, spoke in support of the budget’s accomplishment of freezing tuition and fee increases at public colleges and universities in Massachusetts.
"Funding of public higher education should be a priority in Massachusetts and is a priority in Massachusetts," said Mark.
Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Democrat from Pittsfield and member of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, said that she was appreciative of the Senate’s efforts to expand upon the House’s initial budget proposal for early education. Estimates show that the new budget will eliminate waitlists for early childhood education for 1,000 young students.
"I think that that is some of the best investments we can make," said Farley-Bouvier.
The budget includes an increase of $130 million in Chapter 70 school aid for cities and towns.
And while many of the reforms to education sought by the governor were agreed upon by the legislature and ended up in the final budget, there was more disagreement over transportation, another budget priority for Governor Patrick.
On Friday, Governor Patrick announced that he had vetoed more than $400 million in spending on transportation and local aid, while also filing a supplemental budget requesting that state lawmakers amend a separate transportation finance bill to allow increases in the state’s gasoline tax if tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike west of Route 128 are eliminated as scheduled in 2017.
The governor defended his veto and said he would not sign an unbalanced budget. Patrick added the legislature's transportation finance bill is not solid enough to forward fund the state’s Regional Transit Authorities, support vital projects outside the greater Boston area, and provide aid for road and bridge repair unless the fares would remain after 2017.
Representative Farley-Bouvier said that she opposes increases in the gas tax, which she said would unfairly impact drivers in the western part of the state. She also said a decision about the future tolls can be held at a later date.
"The issue of the tolls coming down in 2017 is real, but at the same time it's something that we can solve later," said Farley-Bouvier.
State Senator Benjamin Downing supported Farley-Bouvier’s position.
"I share Tricia's concerns about the overall bill - it's not the bill I would have crafted," said Downing. "But I do not think raising the gas tax another nine cents is the solution to the challenge of what we do when the tolls come down then."
Representative Mark said he’s disappointed in the governor’s veto of $177 million in unrestricted local aid, which includes Chapter 90 funding, which municipalities often use for projects including road and bridge repair. Legislative leaders in the House and Senate have threatened to override the governor’s veto – a move he supports.
"Part of this compromise deal, part of the reason why you're getting people to vote for this gas tax increase is because we were guaranteed Chapter 90 would go up 50 percent. Chapter 90 is very fair to Western Massachusetts because we have a lot road miles," said Mark. "So that bought a lot of our support and for [the governor] to not release the full amount of money has caused a lot of disappointment and a lot of controversy in the area."
Mark said he is also in support of a legislative override to the governor’s vetoes of projects in small towns, including a $250,000 request in the supplemental budget for repairs on Charlemont’s sewer district, which sustained damages after Tropical Storm Irene. The project was pursued by Mark and Senator Downing.
Legislators could take action on the governor's amended supplemental budget this week.