After days of negotiating, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed a nearly $56 billion spending plan Thursday for fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1.
The budget differs greatly from the House version on a number of issues, setting up a potential fight over priorities between the chambers. Differences in the bill will have to be ironed out before the end of the fiscal year — though the Legislature is known for not making its own deadlines.
At the end of the debate Thursday night, Senate budget chief Michael J. Rodrigues said the budget is “a comprehensive blueprint to make our Commonwealth more affordable, accessible, competitive, and inclusive.”
“We have worked collectively to support long-term economic health and move forward on a road towards an inclusive and resilient post-pandemic Commonwealth that benefits all of us,” he said.
The budget comes nearly a month after the House passed its $56.2 billion spending bill with little public debate.
The Senate included in its budget some major items that the House did not.
Those pieces include a proposal to cover tuition costs for community college nursing students, a hallmark item that would make students without legal immigration status eligible for in-state tuition, and a loan repayment program for behavioral health workers — a topic of chief importance to Senate President Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who has made mental health a priority in her term as the chamber’s leader.
“We will provide tangible benefits for students who may not otherwise attend college, and it will build the state’s workforce by nurturing, harnessing, and growing the talent that we have right here at home,” she said. “We talk a lot about competitiveness these days. And I think Massachusetts offers a very unique brand of competitiveness of a courageous competitiveness where we invest in the fundamentals of our economy, but we do not sacrifice our commitment to our values.”
And Senators omitted key pieces championed by House lawmakers, such as permanent free school lunch, funding for rail service between Boston and the western part of the state, and a proposal to make state lottery games available online.
The differences will now be ironed out in a private conference committee over the next few months, when lawmakers will negotiate behind closed doors to create a compromise bill that includes some of what both chambers want.
Once they vote on an agreed-upon version of the spending plan, the Legislature will send the budget to Governor Maura Healey, who can approve, amend, or veto parts of the bill, and return it to the House and Senate for action.
Some of the items the Senate passed were included in the original spending plan introduced by chamber leaders, including free community college for adults over 25, free phone calls in state prisons and county jails, and a pandemic-era renter protection law that would slow down the court process in eviction proceedings in cases where the tenant has applied for rental assistance.
Also included was language that would require the state’s chief medical examiner to personally review and approve all autopsies of children younger than the age of 2.
The Senate again included language to create a commission to study, among other things, so-called congestion pricing — creating toll rates based on the time of day or volume of traffic. The panel would identify “regionally equitable locations” for tolls. It would also identify a fare structure on the MBTA that would “account for commute patterns and demand.” The commissions’ report would be due on July 1, 2025.
The Legislature previously passed language to create a group to explore ideas such as charging more to travel in and out of Boston at peak times of day, or to drive into a particularly congested part of Boston, as drivers do in central London.
But it repeatedly failed after reaching then-Governor Charlie Baker, who vetoed similar wording in 2021 and, a year later, proposed changing the commission’s structure, but the Legislature did not take up the recommendation. Should it survive, it will likely find a more receptive audience in Healey, who said in a January radio appearance that she backs “a real look at this, whether it’s a pilot or something else.”
Lawmakers this week also sorted through more than 1,000 amendments — keeping some, discarding others — decisions that often happen out of public view, though many senators gave floor speeches to explain their amendments.
Senators spent two hours debating an amendment by Republican Senator Ryan Fattman that would strip the language from the budget that would allow undocumented students access to in-state tuition. The amendment was ultimately rejected, along with many other amendments brought by the chamber’s three Senate Republicans.
In total, senators approved $82 million in additional spending. Notable additions include:
- $1 million to develop midwife birthing centers.
- $800,000 to double the funding to address the rise of hate crimes in Massachusetts high schools.
- $300,000 to help fund the state’s bulk purchase of drug-testing kits for bars, clubs, and restaurants to address drink-spiking in Greater Boston and beyond.
The budget also leaves room for about $575 million for tax relief investments, but a concrete plan won’t be released until later. While both Healey and the House unveiled tax code overhauls to accompany their budget proposals, the Senate has not.
At the end of the debate, Senate Minority Leader Bruce E. Tarr, known for bringing props to the chamber floor, handed a piece of paper to Rodrigues, the budget chief.
In big, black letters, it said “I.O.U. $575 million.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Samantha J. Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.