By Colin A. Young
State House News Service
BOSTON — The House of Representatives passed its first significant bill of the young legislative session Wednesday, unanimously endorsing a bill that adds $135 million in mid-year spending at a time when tax collections are trailing behind projections.
The bill (H 3505), intended to funnel money in the current fiscal year to state accounts that either have run out of cash or will soon run dry, began with a proposal Gov. Charlie Baker filed late in January but House leaders shaved about $30 million from the bill before bringing it to a vote Wednesday.
“The proposal is fairly limited, reflecting a total cost of $134.9 million with a net cost of $124 million to the commonwealth. This is significantly under the governor’s original proposal that called for $165 million in spending,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said.
Through February, state tax collections were running $400 million below benchmarks, which House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Wednesday was a factor in the House’s decision to trim spending from the governor’s proposal. Michlewitz echoed that on the House floor.
“The commonwealth’s economy remains strong but we need to keep a vigilant eye on revenues as we head into the upcoming fiscal year in July,” he said. Michlewitz added that the bill “would spend significantly less than the governor had filed earlier … and we want to be limited in scope to focus on our immediate needs.
The supplemental budget bill came to the House floor at baout 2 p.m. Wednesday and Michlewitz was the only representative to speak in favor or in opposition on the floor. Members filed 18 amendments to the bill by the 1 p.m. deadline, but 16 of them were withdrawn before they could be considered. There was no debate on the two amendments the House did consider and the bill passed on a 154-0 roll call vote at about 3:40 p.m.
Introducing the bill in the House Chamber on Wednesday afternoon, Michlewitz told members the supplemental budget bill would fund “a number of critical programs that are in need of immediate additional funding” and said the accounts that need to be funded are one representatives are familiar with.
The bill includes $30 million in funding for the low-income heating energy assistance program, which Michlewitz called “a critical program that has seen declining support from the federal government over the last year due to regulation changes.”
The chairman said the $30 million allocation represented “full funding” and said it “should ensure that no families in the commonwealth will be forced to put off paying their heating bills.”
It also includes about $10 million for emergency shelter assistance for families and $8 million for the collection and testing of sexual assault evidence kits, which is less than half of what Baker sought for the same purpose. Michlewitz said the $8 million will allow the state to “begin to address the backlog of assault kit tests and continue the progress we made last session with criminal justice reform.”
The House bill did not include $5 million requested by Baker for a regional fentanyl interdiction program, meant to address the synthetic substance that has been a significant driver in the state’s opioid overdose epidemic.
Michlewitz said earlier Wednesday that the House’s exclusion of the regional fentanyl interdiction funding was “not an indictment of that program” and said the House had to prioritize accounts that were in danger of running out of cash.
“Some programs are running out of money as early as April,” the chairman said after a Democratic caucus.
The House rejected an amendment proposed by Minority Leader Brad Jones to put the fentanyl abuse prevention grants back into the bill. The Jones amendment was rejected without any discussion and a Rep. William Galvin amendment related to legislative caucuses was adopted without any discussion — both within about one minute.
The bill includes almost $1.5 million for “the costs associated with an independent statewide examination of the safety of gas distribution infrastructure” with a caveat that the state will levy assessments on the gas distribution companies “at a rate sufficient to produce the amount expended from this item.”
In the wake of the natural gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley, Baker’s administration contracted with Canadian company Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems Inc. to examine and make recommendations about “the physical integrity and safety of the natural gas distribution system and the operation and maintenance policies and practices of all natural gas distribution companies operating within the Commonwealth.”
When it announced the outside analysis, the Department of Public Utilities said it would direct all natural gas distribution companies in the state to fund the evaluation.
The House bill also contains some, but not all, of the policy changes sought by the governor, including “technical changes” to the short-term rental tax and regulation law to address the definition of rent and the way properties are registered in an online database.
The Senate must now pass its own version of a fiscal 2019 supplemental budget and reconcile it with the House’s version before the governor can sign it into law.