- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Gov. Charlie Baker, who took office in January, submitted his first state budget request Wednesday. The filing begins a monthslong process on Beacon Hill leading up to passage of a final spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1. Here are five things to know about the Massachusetts budget.

BY THE NUMBERS

Baker’s fiscal 2016 budget totals $38.06 billion, a $1.1 billion, or 3 percent increase over the current year’s budget. Historically speaking, the state had a $25.6 billion budget in fiscal 2006, and in 1986 then-Gov. Michael Dukakis sent the Legislature an $8.7 billion spending plan. In other words, the budget has grown nearly five-fold in three decades. Baker’s plan anticipates 4.8 percent growth in tax revenues next year, not enough to support the 8 percent spending growth seen in the current fiscal year. The budget refrains from new taxes or state fees, but proposes $457 million in “revenue solutions,” including a tax amnesty program and the sale of a former courthouse in Cambridge.

CLOSING THE GAP

Baker said his biggest challenge was closing an estimated $1.8 billion budget gap. He said his plan tackles the gap using a number of strategies, including ensuring everyone on MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, is eligible to receive benefits and requiring some state employees to contribute a greater share to their health insurance. Baker’s budget would also level-fund many state programs, meaning they would receive the same amount of money as in the current fiscal year even if their costs of doing business are going up. Baker has also proposed incentives to encourage thousands of state employees to retire early.

WHAT’S GOING UP

Austerity aside, Baker’s budget proposal would hike state spending in a number of key areas, including education. He’s asking for a $105 million, or 2.4 percent, increase in state assistance to public school districts. The state’s public colleges and universities would see a net gain of 3 percent, but whether that would be enough to continue a two-year freeze on tuition at the University of Massachusetts remains to be seen. Baker is also calling for a $109 million boost in transportation funding, though many say that won’t do enough to address critical infrastructure problems highlighted by massive MBTA breakdowns this winter. Medicaid funding also goes up by 5.6 percent, but the administration says that’s far less than the 16 percent jump that would otherwise occur without proposed reforms.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Baker’s proposal marks the beginning of a lengthy process. Next up, the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts House will draft and vote on its own budget plan followed by the Massachusetts Senate, also controlled by Democrats. The budgets approved by both chambers are then sent to a six-member conference committee made up of three House and three Senate members. The committee, working behind closed doors, will come up with a final plan that faces an up-or-down vote in both chambers - it can’t be amended at that point. If approved, the budget will be sent to Baker, a Republican, who can sign it while also vetoing individual line items. If they want, lawmakers can try to override those vetoes.

EARLY REVIEWS

As with all state budget proposals, the reviews are mixed. The state’s top judges said Baker’s proposal doesn’t provide the necessary funding to operate or staff the courts in a safe and effective manner. A coalition of early childhood education organizations also faulted the budget, saying Baker missed an opportunity to signal his commitment to early education and care. Other groups praised Baker. The Children’s League of Massachusetts applauded Baker for increasing funding to the Department of Children and Families while the advocacy group Health Care For All credited Baker for maintaining the state’s commitment to affordable health care.

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