DOWNING’S HIGHER ED AUDIT SYSTEM AND COMMUNITY PRESERVATION ACT EXPANSION INITIATIVES ENDORSED BY COMMITTEE; SENATE PRIORITIZES FUNDING FOR CITIES AND TOWNS
Boston –State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D- Pittsfield) announces that the Senate Committee on Ways and Means released its funding recommendations – known as S. 4 -- for Fiscal Year 2013 (FY13) during an executive session at the State House this morning. The spending plan showcases the Massachusetts Senate’s unfaltering pledge to prioritize commitments that allow for greater transparency and smarter financial planning for the future and closes a $1.4 billion budget gap with a combination of ongoing revenue initiatives, one-time resources and spending reductions, and without new taxes. Downing has been an active member of the Committee since 2009.
Further demonstrating an ongoing commitment to fiscal responsibility, the Committee plan includes a modest $290 million withdrawal from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, leaving Massachusetts on track to reach a projected balance of $1.19 billion in the stabilization fund at the end of FY13. Spending in the proposal totals $32.275 billion, a 3.7% increase over FY12 projected spending, with notable increases in local aid, education, and fixed costs, such as debt service, retiree benefits, and health care.
One of the most significant spending increases fulfills a promise to municipal partners by increasing investments in Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA), Chapter 70, and Special Education Circuit Breaker, the three largest sources of direct state aid to cities, towns, and school districts.
This budget proposes an increase of $275.4 million in local aid over the amount appropriated in FY12. It allocates $900 million for UGGA, which includes the $65 million supplemental local aid payment made in FY12 through FY11 reserves providing municipalities with more security as they craft their budgets; $4.17 billion in spending is included for Chapter 70, ensuring that all school districts receive at least an additional $40 per pupil in aid; and $242.2 million for the Special Education Circuit Breaker, fully funding the state’s obligation for the first time since FY08 and ensuring students with special needs receive the services and education they deserve.
In an effort to curb costs for municipalities, the budget also includes $4 million for the Community Innovation Challenge Grant Program that covers start-up costs for initiatives to improve service delivery, promote regionalization, and reduce costs in areas of municipal innovation. This funding will allow cities and towns to start investing on a local level in programs that improve infrastructure, strengthen the local economy, keep citizens safe, and put people to work. Recipients of 2012 Community Innovation Challenge Grants were announced on March 16th; eight awards were distributed to projects located in Downing’s district.
The Committee budget also strengthens the Community Preservation Act (CPA), which allows municipalities to establish a fund to support local needs, by expanding the use of these funds to rehabilitate and restore existing outdoor parks, other recreational resources, and support affordable housing. Furthermore, the Committee’s budget authorizes the use of alternative municipal revenues to supplement a reduced CPA property tax surcharge. Downing is a co-sponsor of S. 1841, similar legislation pending in the House this session which seeks to expand the CPA.
In the wake of years of fiscal challenges and reduction in services, municipalities have faced a myriad of challenges and public safety has remained at the top of that list. In an effort to address this challenge, the Senate Ways and Means budget recommends an investment of $17 million in total spending for three key programs: Shannon Grants, which help maintain partnerships at the local level to address the root causes of gang violence; the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, which targets services to youth that have been identified as most likely to be criminally involved; and support for municipal police staffing in cities with the highest crime rates where violent crime have increased as police staffing has decreased.
This spending plan also includes critical contributions to education initiatives across the Bay State. In addition to Chapter 70 spending, the Committee’s recommendation includes $4.5 million in education grants for Gateway Cities, former industrial Massachusetts mill cities (such as Pittsfield) that target economic and community development -- a priority of Downing’s as the Senate Chair of the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus.
The bill provides $3.5 million for a foundation reserve that will help school districts meet unforeseen funding challenges not anticipated in the Chapter 70 formula. Support is also included for Advanced Placement (AP) courses for underserved populations. The $2 million investment will increase access for students to AP level work, better preparing them to attend college, enter the workforce, and have a greater chance at excelling. Locally, this investment will allow the Lee and North Adams Public Schools to fully participate in this year’s Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative Grant Program, helping the districts to ensure their AP programs vibrant and vital.
A skilled workforce means more people back to work; Massachusetts still maintains a lower jobless rate than the rest of the nation, but that is not good enough. This budget continues the commitment to improving the connection between our public higher education resources and the needs of an evolving business environment. The Committee’s FY13 budget includes $10.9 million in new investments for this cause. Additional resources will help improve the already strong partnership between our Community Colleges and local industries. New programs include a Rapid Response workforce program to expedite the process for community colleges to create a workforce training program by targeting specific requests from employers and the creation of a centrally administered, computer-based transfer and degree auditing system for all students within the Massachusetts public higher education system to ease the process for students wishing to transfer from community college to a state university.
The degree auditing system is based on legislation sponsored by Downing -- S. 567 -- which received the endorsement of the Higher Education Committee in May and is currently pending in Senate Ways and Means. Downing, who served as the Acting Senate Chairman of the Higher Education Committee last session and continues to serve on the panel this year, filed An Act relative to student records coordination across public higher education institutions at the request of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.
The Committee also calls for increased oversight of community colleges, requiring the Governor to appoint the chairman of the board of trustees for each community college and requiring that board to include a nonvoting industry representative from 1 of the 3 industries with the greatest projected number of job vacancies and a nonvoting vocational-technical school district trustee to represent each vocational-technical school in the geographic region. The plan also requires community colleges to submit a self-assessment report to the Secretary of Education and the Board of Higher Education on the college’s collaboration with vocational-technical schools and training and job development programs they have implemented. Furthermore, it establishes the Office of Coordination within the Department of Higher Education to serve as a clearinghouse for all training opportunities provided by public higher education institutions.
Most importantly, these new investments do not come at the cost of our neediest residents. The Committee’s budget continues to prioritize essential services for our most vulnerable citizens. The budget includes a provision to maintain mental health services, ensuring all regions of the state have access to care and it funds the operation of 45 state-operated inpatient beds at Taunton State Hospital, which is targeted for closure by the Patrick Administration. It also increases funding for elder protective services, substance abuse services, independent living centers, and the department of veterans services.
Funding is also increased for housing services, such as the HomeBASE program, aimed at reducing homelessness while helping families work towards permanent residences. The budget also includes an $8.5 million increase over last year’s allocation for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT).
In order to maintain the Commonwealth’s fiscal health, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means proposes improvements that increase efficiency and allow for greater transparency. Recent efforts have secured Massachusetts’ highest bond rating in its history, translating into millions in savings in lower interest rates. This budget provides $750,000 for a new State Police Public Benefit Fraud Unit that will be charged with working with other local, state, and federal authorities to investigate and pursue cases where benefits intended to help our neediest families are being misused. Furthermore, this budget requires all stores that accept cash assistance benefits to post a sign explaining where to report fraud and expands the list of restricted items that cannot be purchased with cash assistance benefits.
This budget proposal was crafted as the Commonwealth prepares to enter the fifth year of unprecedented fiscal challenges. Fiscal year 2013 saw a small but significant projected revenue increase of 4.47%. The Senate Ways and Means Committee’s spending plan ensures that the investments made here will maximize our growth for the future. Commitments to jobs will strengthen our economy for future generations and the $6.3 million investment in the Massachusetts Cultural Council, $6 million for Local Tourist Councils and $6.9 million for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism will help drive tourism in the area.
Senators have until 3pm on Friday, May 18th to file amendments to the Committee’s spending plan. The Senate FY13 budget debate is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, May 23rd. Senate budget documents are available online at http://www.malegislature.gov/Budget/FY2013/Senate.
Fiscal Year 2013 begins on July 1, 2012.