BOSTON (AP) - House and Senate negotiators began closed-door talks Thursday on a $34 billion state budget, with a number of key issues to be resolved before the start of the state's new fiscal year July 1.
The first official action by the six-member conference committee was a vote to exclude reporters by holding the meeting and all subsequent ones in executive session. Negotiations on the budget are customarily held in private with only the lawmakers and staff members present.
The House and Senate each passed separate versions of the budget. Both call for increases in spending over the current fiscal year, but less in total spending than had been requested by Gov. Deval Patrick in the budget proposal he filed in January.
Both the House and Senate budgets are predicated on about $500 million in new revenue, including hikes in gasoline and cigarette taxes, which were tied to a separate transportation financing bill.
Budget negotiators will be seeking compromises on areas including education, health care, housing and youth violence prevention programs.
One potential sticking point could be funding for the University of Massachusetts system. The House approved $478 million for the university, while the Senate came in at $455 million. Both figures represent increases over the current year, but UMass officials have said the House appropriation would enable them to freeze tuition and fees in the coming academic year.
The House budget also included steps to address welfare fraud, including a requirement that photo identification be put on electronic benefit cards used by public benefit recipients. Senate President Therese Murray has indicated that she would prefer to address welfare reform in separate legislation later this year.
The six-member committee includes House Ways and Means chairman Brian Dempsey of Haverhill and Rep. Stephen Kulik of Worthington, both Democrats, and Republican Rep. Vincent deMacedo of Plymouth. The Senate members are Ways and Means chairman Stephen Brewer of Barre and Sen. Jennifer Flanagan of Leominster, both Democrats, and Sen. Michael Knapik of Westfield, a Republican.