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Legislature prepares for changes in the new calendar, fiscal year

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The second year of the biennial session of the Massachusetts Legislature began this month with ceremonial meetings in both chambers, which were followed with lengthy debates on several hot-button issues in the house.

I also voted with the majority in rejecting legislation that would have allowed certain illegal immigrants in Massachusetts to pay in-state tuition rates while attending public colleges and universities. I am firmly against an attempt to impose onerous regulations for financial record-keeping and reporting on churches in our state.

The Health Care Financing Conference Committee has been meeting several times a week for some time to reach a compromise on the House of Representatives and Senate versions of comprehensive legislation extending insurance coverage to many in the state who now lack it and significantly changing the existing MassHealth structure. I continue to be impressed with the seriousness of my colleagues on this committee, and the diligence of our staff people in their approach to this difficult subject.

The start of a new calendar year is always accompanied at the state level with the first stirrings of the budget cycle. First comes agreement from the legislative and executive branches on a tax revenue forecast for the upcoming fiscal year that begins in July.

Shortly after the forecast appears, the governor is called upon to present his version of the full state budget. The actual document was not available to me at the time this column was submitted, but the main outlines are fairly well known.

Governor Romney has already announced that it will include an increase of $198 million in non-school local aid (17%), financed largely by lottery revenues that had been previously withheld for state purposes. He also promised a very significant increase in Chapter 70 aid to public schools, which at more than $3 billion represents the major component of total aid to cities and towns.

Accompanying this will be a call for formula changes to address population trends. The spending plan also features a $200 million contingency for expenses arising from new legislation, reformulates the distribution of community policing funds and new housing incentive funds according to the lottery template, and includes a large increase in the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) account to compensate municipalities for tax-exempt state properties. The overall plan assumes a reduction in the income tax rate from the current 5.3 percent to 5.15 percent, followed by a similar reduction next year.

The cycle will continue with what will likely be joint hearings in February and March by the House of Representatives and Senate Ways and Means committees to scrutinize the Governor’s plan.

Following these, the house will come forward with its own version of the budget for debate and amendment in the spring, and the Senate will soon thereafter substitute another version. Eventually, a six-member Conference Committee will negotiate differences between the branches before returning the reworked bill to the governor.

This being an election year, the legislature must complete its formal sessions by July 31.