Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has signed a $36.5 billion dollar budget for 2015.
Patrick signed the spending plan into law at the statehouse Friday morning. Lawmakers sent him the budget for review June 30th, marking the end of the fiscal year. A bill was passed to fund state government during the gap period. The Democrat had ten days to look it over and spoke with WAMC News on July 7th.
“It’s a good budget,” Patrick said. “In many respects it follows certainly many of the priorities set out in my own budget proposal back in January. I like a lot of the education investments in particular from pre-K up through higher ed[ucation.] I think those are enormously important and have a huge long-term impact. I think the investments around the Department of Children and Families and also around the opioid addiction epidemic are very helpful and important.”
Funding increases include $48 million at the embattled Department of Children and Families. The agency has been under a microscope after a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose family was being monitored by DCF went missing in September. Jeremiah Oliver’s body was found in April. An outside investigation found that while the agency was not responsible for Oliver’s death, the case was mishandled. Three staffers were fired and later that month department head Olga Roche resigned after questions were raised concerning two other cases where children died.
State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier serves on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. The Democrat from Pittsfield is one of the lawmakers tasked with investigating the agency. She says state investments in job creation initiatives post-recession are succeeding, but at the expense of other areas.
“The down side of that is some of the less exciting things in the budget were neglected,” Farley-Bouvier said. “I think the Department of Children and Families is a clear example. They have been working with $100 million less since 2008. You can’t have that kind of divestment in department, especially in times of crisis, without there being an impact.”
DCF has hired 200 front-line staffers since the beginning of the year. Farley-Bouvier says the goal is to reduce caseloads from 18 to 15 per social worker. But high attrition and low retention rates have made that difficult.
“The crisis has only grown in the department,” she said. “Now social workers are at 22/23 to one. So even with these new hirings, we aren’t getting our numbers down. Actually they’re rising.”
The budget also includes aid to the Northern Berkshires following the sudden closure of North Adams Regional Hospital in March. Democratic State Senator Ben Downing of Pittsfield sponsored a number of financial initiatives including a $750,000 payment to the city of North Adams for budget relief.
“This buys the city and the region some time to come up with a more thoughtful way to figure out how we integrate the new healthcare provider system in that area into the broader economy and into a service network,” said Downing.
The budget includes increases of $100 million in local education aid and $75 million for public colleges and universities. The funding allows the five UMASS schools to freeze tuition and fee increases, but students at nine state universities and 15 community colleges could see tuition hikes. The budget factors in about $73 million in projected casino licensing and slot parlor revenues despite a November ballot question that seeks repeal of the state's 2011 casino gambling law.
“It is a coin flip now about whether or not we are going to have casinos in Massachusetts,” Downing said. “I would have liked to see us come up with a way to build a budget without that.”
Governor Patrick vetoed $16 million worth of line items. The Democrat also filed a supplemental budget which includes $32 million for winter cleanup costs. The state’s fiscal 2014 budget totaled $33.6 billion.