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Senate rejects $20M hike in community college funding

BOSTON – The Senate on Thursday rejected a $20 million increase in community college funding with several senators complaining they would not approve the measure without guarantees from campus officials that they would freeze tuition and fees.

A vote was pending late Thursday on a separate amendment to boost funding by $15 million for nine four-year state universities and a companion amendment formalizing an understanding with officials from those former state college campuses not to increase fees or tuition.

Those budget decisions will not impact the University of Massachusetts as the $36 billion Senate spending plan as proposed already provided enough additional funding to avoid tuition and fee hikes at UMass campuses in the coming fiscal year.

Rejection of the community college funding came despite hopes by Gov. Deval L. Patrick that all the colleges would hold the line on tuition and fees next year as they did during the current year.

Earlier in the day the governor had said, “my hope and expectation is that if the Legislature funds the state universities and community colleges at the level that we had proposed that they would freeze tuition and fees for a second year.”

Legislators said the community college funding was rejected because while some community colleges had indicated plans to freeze student costs if the additional $20 million were provided, at least four had said they would not freeze those costs for the coming academic year.

In other developments, the Senate approved an amendment from Sen. Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, aimed at bailing the Princeton Municipal Light Department out of a financially troubled clean energy project.

If agreed to in a House-Senate conference committee for inclusion in the final budget and approved by the governor, the amendment would allow the Massachusetts Clean Energy Technology Center to spend up to $2 million from the state Renewable Energy Trust Fund to purchase renewable energy certificates from the department. Normally the town is not eligible for those funds.

The town invested heavily in new wind turbines but town officials said their wind farm near Wachusett Mountain has resulted in higher than expected debt costs, energy production and repair costs along with less than expected energy output. Without the assistance, town officials said its 1,500 customers are paying on average an additional $480 annually over their investment in wind power.

Ms. Chandler also saw approval of another amendment she filed to require the Department of Public Health to hold a public hearing before approving any application for a license for skilled nursing facilities, or for the sale or closure of those long term care facilities. She said the hearings are being sought because many skilled nursing facilities that house lower-income Medicare patients have closed around the state this year.

The Senate rejected an amendment from state Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Worcester, seeking to increase state aid to Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton from $3.5 million included in the Senate Ways and Means budget to $5.5 million, an amount included in the final House budget.

Mr. Moore said the differences will be worked out in a joint House-Senate conference committee.

The Senate budget provides for no tax increases and a five percent increase in spending over the current year, with a $100 million increase in local public school funding and a $20 million increase in municipal aid.

At the start of the budget debate Wednesday the Senate voted to allocate $42 million of an anticipated surplus from the current year with $25 million for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Investment Fund, $10 million for the Community Preservation Trust Fund and $7 million for the state’s Social Innovation Financing Trust Fund.