- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 27, 2021

BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled a $45.6 billion state budget Wednesday for the 2022 fiscal year beginning July 1 - a slight decline in estimated spending compared to the current fiscal year as Beacon Hill works to get the budget process back on a more predictable path following a chaotic 2020.

The budget proposal has several goals, including maintaining pre-COVID-19 eligibility and benefit levels in social safety net programs while also supporting pandemic response and recovery efforts and maximizing the use of federal funds for housing, food insecurity and economic development.

The spending plan also includes no tax increases for state residents and fully funds the first year of the state’s new Student Opportunity Act, which requires more funds be channeled into school systems with higher percentages of low-income students and English language learners.

“We don’t believe raising taxes on the residents of the commonwealth especially in the midst of all that’s going on is the right thing to do,” Baker said.

Baker said the spending proposal also allows Massachusetts “to respond to the pandemic and promote our recovery, while investing in key priorities such as education, health care, substance misuse, and racial equality and diversity.”

The state would make another hefty withdrawal from its rainy day fund under the proposed budget as the Massachusetts seeks to ease the financial strains imposed by the pandemic.

The budget for the current fiscal year anticipates a withdrawal of about $1.35 billion and up to $1.6 billion for the new fiscal year, leaving about $1.1 billion left in the stabilization fund.

That could change if Congress acts on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which could allow the state to draw less from the rainy day fund by instead relying on federal dollars.

The proposed state budget would also increase funding for early childhood education programs, boost spending on a new congregate care network designed to achieve safety, permanency, and healthier outcomes for 2,000 children, adolescents, and young adults involved in the state Department of Children and Families, and make needed staffing and infrastructure investments at the Chelsea and Holyoke soldiers homes.

Baker is also proposing doubling the budget for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to improve the agency’s readiness and enable it to do more frequent, in-depth reviews on emergency management plans, increase trainings and add staffing.

The budget proposal also includes an outside section that would allow the sale of lottery products by remote methods such as debit cards in Massachusetts while maintaining the existing ban on the use of credit cards to buy lottery products.

The release of the budget comes a day after Baker delivered his annual State of the Commonwealth address.

During the speech, Baker said that the state’s economy had been “hammered” by the coronavirus and the state’s efforts to slow the spread of the highly contagious disease.

“Today, we are in much better shape economically than we were last spring. But far too many people still can’t find a job. Our downtowns are hurting. And many of our small businesses have been crushed by the pandemic,” the Republican said during the address from his office in a nearly empty Statehouse.

Democratic House Speaker Ronald Mariano tweeted Wednesday that he looking forward to reviewing Baker’s budget proposal “and working with him and the Senate this session on legislation that will match the scale of the current economic and public health emergencies.”

The release of the governor’s spending plan marks the start of the budget debate on Beacon Hill, which was interrupted last year by the coronavirus pandemic.

The House and Senate will release and debate their own versions of the budget before hashing out a single compromise version that must be approved by both chambers before being sent to Baker for his signature by the start of 2021 fiscal year on July 1.

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