The Way We Spend Reflects Who and What We Value – Rep. Rogers’ Thoughts on the FY2017 Budget

The process of crafting Massachusetts’ budget began in January with the Governor’s budget proposal. The House is now developing its budget, to be followed by the Senate’s budget deliberations and ultimately a conference committee to resolve differences between the two. I want to take this opportunity to discuss the state budget and some of my priorities. While high profile legislation often grabs the headlines, I have learned that the state budget is in many respects the most influential and far reaching work of your State Legislature.
An important facet of understanding the annual budget process is that a significant percentage of expenditures are not up for debate; most spending is predetermined by basic functions of government. For example, funding for MassHealth (our state’s version of Medicaid), and other spending cannot fluctuate wildly as state agencies need to budget for the coming year with reasonable confidence in future funding. The amount of money that is actually up for negotiation is a subset of the overall budget, which is spread thin amidst ongoing recovery of the state budget from the precipitous decline in state revenue caused by the Great Recession.
Why is a budget that increased by $11.7 billion since 2009 lows (from $26.7 billion to $38.4 billion, around 43.8%) tight? Ever rising health care costs are the biggest culprit. Increasing by $6.7 billion during that time, health care cost growth makes up over half of the growth in the budget during the economic recovery, and roughly 40% of the budget overall. Another factor is Massachusetts’ ongoing structural budget deficit, which the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates at between $700 and $900 million. Supported by one-time revenues (such as lawsuit settlements), legislative leaders aim to close the gap. As a result, despite the increase in state revenue over the last 6 or 7 years, and the concomitant increase in state spending, many items have not recovered to pre-Recession levels. And of course, unlike the federal government, in most respects the state government cannot run budget deficits. The budget has to be in balance each year.
Governor Baker has proposed $39.55 billion (a 3.5% increase over FY2016) in FY2017 spending based on the “consensus revenue projection”, a projection developed each year based on the input of experts. Given the aforementioned challenges, significant opportunities for new investment will be limited. Governor Baker’s proposal, however, features a woefully small increase in Chapter 70 Local Aid for education and cuts welfare payments for disabled citizens. These are the wrong places to trim spending. I support progressive goals including funding early education, civil legal aid, transportation infrastructure, the arts, substance abuse treatment, and in particular the priorities laid out below.
My top priority is making sure local aid – in particular for education – grows healthily. To put Governor Baker’s proposed 1.6% increase in perspective, FY2016 and FY2015 saw 2.53% and 2.31% increases respectively. Governor Baker’s proposal is particularly misguided given the report of the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC). The FBRC reviewed the Chapter 70 formula and recommended changes, something that has not happened since the early 90s. Predictably, the FBRC final report revealed chronic underfunding of K-12 education by around $430 million annually due to rising health care costs faced by school districts and also high special education costs, among others. Had recommended changes been fully implemented in FY2016, additional increases would have been pegged at $4.2 million for Arlington, $3.2 million for Belmont, and $3.5 million for Cambridge. Again, that’s above and beyond what those school districts receive now.
My second budget priority is increased funding for the Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). I lead House efforts to secure MassDEP funding and ensure safe drinking water, healthy rivers, streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds, among other MassDEP responsibilities. Funding levels remain over $4 million below FY2009 levels and staff levels have declined to 68.6% of previous levels. Limited resources have yielded backlogs as MassDEP struggles to fulfill its core mission. For example, MassDEP previously tested water quality every 5 years, but current data is 8-16 years old meaning MA stormwater permits are based on stale data. MassDEP has also stopped developing plans to provide scientific basis for EPA pollution control permits and is struggling with data management, leading statewide planning efforts, and providing assistance to municipalities. I look at Flint and grow concerned and so I am fighting for this line item as one of my highest priorities.
MassDEP also faces new responsibilities like the Sustainable Water Management Initiative (SWMI), but has only issued 3 permits (114 are delayed and the next 64 scheduled will also be delayed). Governor Baker’s directive to review all regulations has also posed a unique challenge as MassDEP has more regulations that any department (86). MassDEP supports a flourishing environment, public health, recreation, property values, climate change resilience, and general quality of life. Ensuring this critical state agency has sufficient resources to fulfill its core mission is prudent policy.
My final priority is services for homeless individuals. Homeless individuals comprise 1/3 of Massachusetts’ homeless population but receive less than 20% of homelessness funding. Stable housing is fundamental to delivering services that get people back on track to productive lives. Many shelters have designated beds as “permanent,” allowing repeat visitors to stay long term. Increasing funding – particularly by raising the bed rate of $25 – would allow shelters to house more individuals and provide additional services. Helping homeless individuals is humane and supports system-wide saving by reducing use of expensive services like emergency rooms.
Budgets are not numbers on a piece of paper; they are a statement about our Commonwealth’s values. The way we spend reflects who and what we value. I support the priorities I have described above along with a broad array of other progressive priorities for this reason. Our opportunities for new investment are limited, but I do believe we will pass a fiscally sound budget with targeted investments in key areas, hopefully including those to advance the cause of greater economic and social justice for which I am advocating as your voice on Beacon Hill.

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Posted in Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, News, Op Eds, The District

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Contact Dave

Please never hesitate to contact me for any reason.

Phone: 617-722-2637
Email: dave.rogers@mahouse.gov
Mail: State House Room 544, Boston, MA 02133