Conference committee takes up competing budget bills

By Daniel J. Fitzgibbons

A six-member legislative conference committee this week opened negotiations to resolve differences between the $22.5 billion fiscal 2005 state spending packages approved by the House of Representatives and Senate.

Part of the discussions will focus on the amount of state support for the UMass system during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Under the Senate version of the budget, the five-campus system is essentially level-funded. Senators approved a maintenance appropriation of $337,664, 464 which is only $117,000 less than the funding requested by the President’s Office.

The Senate also approved $54,670,570 for the collective bargaining reserve, used to pay the costs of employee union contracts. Together, the Senate package totals $392,335,034.

In the first round of legislative budget action, the House passed a budget plan that reduces the University’s funding by 1 percent. The package consists of a $334,386,819 maintenance appropriation and $53,620,570 for collective bargaining costs. The House measure totals $388,007,389.

The House and Senate bills also differ on funding for Commonwealth College, with the Senate version providing level funding of $1.715 million for the honors program, while the House measure cuts the amount by 1 percent to $1,697,850.

Both versions of the budget contain language to continue fringe benefit support for employees funded by tuition retention during FY05.

The conference committee will also have to deal with a range of funding earmarks for various programs and centers across the five-campus system. Both measures earmark $50,000 for the 4-H program and include language stipulating that funds for UMass Extension “shall be adjusted only in direct proportion to university budget adjustments to other academic programs” at UMass Amherst and spent in accordance with a plan approved by UMass Extension’s Board of Public Overseers.

The conference committee members are Sen. Therese Murray (D-Plymouth), who chairs that chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, Sen. Steven Panagiotakos (D-Lowell), and Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield). House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. John Rogers (D-Norwood) is joined by Rep. Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield) and Viriato deMacedo (R-Plymouth).