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Patrick’s ‘14 budget focuses on education as recession subsides

After years of decreasing funding for education due to the Great Recession, Gov. Deval Patrick plans to increase support to higher education by $283 million, according to his budget proposal released Wednesday.

“We have proposed a balanced, responsible budget that makes investments in education, innovation and infrastructure that will grow jobs and opportunity in the near-term, and strengthen our Commonwealth in the long-term,” Patrick said in a letter  Wednesday.

Patrick proposed a $34.8 billion budget for the new fiscal year that would increase state spending by 6.9 percent over the current fiscal year and increase the income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent.

Last week Patrick proposed investing $550 million in education that would reach $1 billion over four years. He wants to make higher education more affordable for students and expand access to educational opportunities, according to a press release Friday.

From 2011, higher education spending decreased by more than $7 million. From 2012 to the current fiscal year, higher education spending increased by about $975,000, according to Patrick’s statewide budget summary.

Some officials at higher education institutions said state funding to their schools decreased dramatically over the years.

“The level of state support that UMass has received from the state has declined by nearly 21 percent since 2001 and it is actually lower than other segments of other state schools,” said Ann Scales, communications director for the University of Massachusetts President’s Office.

Scales said the trend in state funding has been declining and students and their families are left to pick up the bill.

“The state provided 61 percent of what it costs general education programs and students and families funded 39 percent of it,” she said. “Now that number is upside down and students pay more than the state gives.”

UMass had been trimming its budget even before the recession and its officials support Patrick’s proposal, Scales said.

“We are grateful to Governor Patrick for this increase in funding, and this is a step in right direction,” she said. “We need to see what happens in the legislature and hopefully this is the year that we can see some budget reform.”

Mass. Sen. Stephen Brewer said before Patrick’s plan is passed, the House and Senate must draft their own budgets and compromise on what should be spent for the next fiscal year.

“Making higher education more affordable is a noble cause,” Brewer said. “Scholarship aid is a noble endeavor. It has to be paid for though, and we have to make sure that whatever resources we have is supported by the majority.”

He said the House should make its proposal in April, the Senate in May. Collaboration on the budget would then take place in June, in time for the new fiscal year on July 1.

Patrick’s proposal is ambitious, Brewer said.

“It is a strong list that he suggested,” he said. “We have to be mindful of who pays the bill for it and we will evaluate that when it comes time.”

However, some people said they believe that Patrick’s budget is constraining on the Commonwealth.

“This year’s budget is not one to be taken lightly and the Legislature will be forced to grapple with the many fiscal constraints facing Massachusetts,” said Mass. House Minority Leader Bradley Jones in a Wednesday press release.

“However, what should not be lost in budgetary line items or sound bites are the real concerns and desires of the taxpayers.”

Others said they support Patrick’s budget and believe the increase in funding for higher education will help public schools.

“I like that they are doing investments for the future,” said Randall

Ellis, professor of economics at Boston University. “They are investments and hopefully we get better services in the future. It won’t help BU, but it will help the state schools.”

Ellis said Patrick’s proposal might pass.

“Massachusetts is lucky that we still have House and Senate in control by Democrats, so that they will agree on things easier,” he said. “I think that it might pass due to his [Patrick’s] leadership. Since he is not running for office again, it will be easier for him to support an unpopular part of the proposal like the increase in income tax.”

However, Ellis said despite the recession, the economy of Massachusetts can tolerate an increase in more spending.

“We are not entirely out of the recession and we can’t stop barring from planning for the future,” he said. “Massachusetts’s economy is strong enough to handle it.”

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