The Massachusetts Senate approved a $32.4 billion budget Friday that increases money for local schools, keeps the Taunton State Hospital for the mentally ill open, and includes new provisions intended to crack down on illegal immigration.
The wide-ranging budget bill will now be reconciled with the House version, approved last month, before the Legislature delivers a compromise to Governor Deval Patrick for his signature.
Like the House budget, the Senate spending plan includes no new taxes or fees, which lawmakers are loath to impose during an election year. The new budget year begins July 1.
The most emotionally charged measures were approved in the final hours of debate late Thursday and early Friday. Responding to public outrage, senators approved provisions intended to crack down on illegal immigration and welfare fraud.
The immigration amendment includes a requirement that companies doing business with the state use a federal database to verify the immigration status of their employees. The measure also includes new checks and stiffer criminal penalties aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses or public housing.
Similar measures have been approved for the last two years in the Senate, but were stripped out during negotiations with the House, before the budget reached the governor’s desk. The House budget this year includes more limited immigration provisions, among them, increased penalties for unlicensed drivers and the businesses that hire those drivers.
Proponents said the tougher Senate measure will ensure that federal immigration law is enforced, tax dollars are not used to propagate illegal immigration, and that legal residents are not unfairly denied state services.
"It is not meant to hurt people who are following the law," said Richard Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat. "It is meant to enforce the law."
Critics said the changes would add unnecessary costs and red tape for small businesses, and unwittingly penalize legal residents and citizens because the federal database known as E-Verify is rife with inaccuracies. They also said the proposed rules could force legal residents out of public housing, if one family member sharing a unit was not a legal resident.
"I just don’t see a legitimate reason, other than to scapegoat a population, a vulnerable population," said Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat.
The budget also includes $750,000 for a new State Police unit to investigate public benefit fraud, and a ban on using cash assistance or electronic benefit cards in liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs. The measure also calls on the MBTA to accept electronic benefit cards. Even as lawmakers tried to show they were rooting abuse out of the social safety net, they put an emphasis on the need to protect the most vulnerable.
Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat from Plymouth, called it a fiscally conservative budget, but said lawmakers were able to find money for some priorities, such as the hospital in Taunton.
"The most compassionate piece of that is the fact that we now have some mental health beds and facilities in Southeastern Massachusetts," she said. "We’re not abandoning the mentally ill there."
The House and the governor had agreed to close the hospital. The Senate budget would keep it open at about half its current capacity.
Still, not everyone agreed it was a compassionate budget. Lewis Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said thousands of subsidized summer jobs for poor teenagers would be lost if the Senate’s spending plan prevails.
Over three days of debate, senators added about $74 million in spending and a host of new policy initiatives, including a provision requiring mutual insurance companies to provide fuller disclosure of compensation to chief executive officers and establishing an independent committee to review and approve compensation levels.
During debate on the budget, Senate Republicans were thwarted in their effort to introduce tax cut amendments when Murray ruled Wednesday that the budget is not technically a "money bill," and the tax rate cannot therefore be changed.
The Senate budget would give $20 million more than the House plan to local elementary and secondary school aid, even as it would cut $11.3 million that the House had devoted to help cities and towns transport homeless children to school. Funding for special education would increase by $20 million over the House plan.
Local aid, which pays for municipal services such as police officers and firefighters, would see a $275 million increase over the current budget year, the same bump that the House approved.