Baker education aid increase falls short of campaign trail pledge
BOSTON >> Gov. Charlie Baker proposed increases in local aid Friday and drew praise from municipal officials eager to share in the state's growing revenues, but the governor's education aid increase fell well short of the level he pledged as a candidate.
In keeping with one campaign promise, unrestricted local aid funding will increase by more than 4 percent in the budget he plans to unveil next week, Baker told a Boston ballroom packed with municipal officials on Friday morning.
"Tax revenue is going up by 4.3 percent, so unrestricted local aid is going to go up by the equivalent calculation of 4.3 percent," Baker said to cheers from the Massachusetts Municipal Association annual meeting audience. The aid account, which is shared by the state's 351 cities and towns, will rise by about $42 million.
But during his 2014 campaign, Baker promised that he would increase "total local aid," including "education funding and unrestricted aid" to cities and towns, at the same rate state revenues grow by his second year in office, according to his printed campaign materials.
Chapter 70 education aid will see a $72.1 million increase in the fiscal 2017 budget he'll fully unveil next week, Baker's office said.
School aid through the Chapter 70 program - one of the largest accounts in the state budget - totaled over $4.5 billion in fiscal 2016, and a 4.3 percent increase in that account would require a $194 million investment and Baker is proposing only a 1.6 percent increase in fiscal 2017.
"The commitment we made to the cities and towns, which we talked about quite a bit, was that unrestricted local aid would go up by whatever the rate of the growth in tax revenue was, and it is going up by that," Baker told reporters after an event later Friday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. "And Chapter 70 goes up according to a formula that we fully funded in our budget."
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the MMA, said that Baker's local aid increase will be the largest in recent memory and is "critically important" for cities and towns.
"It's really good news for communities because cities and towns have eliminated 15,000 positions in local government, they're facing very tight fiscal times," he said after Baker's remarks. "For the state to make that kind of a commitment, it will return communities to a position where they'll be able to do planning, they'll be able to predict how much money year after year will be returned in the form of municipal aid."
MMA President David Dunford said the Baker administration's release of $100 million in Chapter 90 transportation funding that had previously been withheld, and a roughly $30 million account Baker created to make pothole and road repair funds available to municipalities after last winter are evidence of his commitment to local governments.
"During the past year, it has become crystal clear that cities and towns have no better partner and ally," Dunford, who also serves as a selectman in Orleans, said. "His entire administration and team, including Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and all their cabinet members, have reached out to local officials on every topic, initiative and decision that affects our communities."
On that note, Baker touted his administration's Community Compact Cabinet, which Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito has spearheaded. Since the compact program was announced at the MMA annual meeting a year ago, the governor's office said, Polito has visited 114 communities to enter into compacts representing "community-crafted, mutual best practices aimed at improving local fiscal policies, sustainable energy practices and advancing economic development and affordable housing."
"That is just a treasure trove of opportunity for us to learn about best practices and most significant and positive improvements and ways in which we can all work together to enhance and improve the work that you do every day," Baker said, "and to provide you and us with what I would refer to as an agreement that can help us decide the ways that we can invest in your communities and you can invest in your communities as well."
And in a call to action, Baker urged the local officials to make their voices heard on Beacon Hill as the Legislature considers his municipal government modernization bill, which would give municipalities more control over local liquor licenses and update contract procurement policies.
"We think you have done a lot of important work to help us craft a bill that can make life far better, less complicated, more effective and more efficient," he said. "Now we need to make the sale to the folks in the Legislature so they can see the value and power and importance of this."
Baker recounted the State House press conference he and Polito held to announce the details of the reform bill, at which local officials filled the Grand Staircase and cheered for what he has called "like 200 sections of the most boring weed-whacking stuff you ever saw in your life."
"Literally, it was like watching someone -- no offense -- Karyn is sitting there reading something that sounds like it's coming out of the Farmer's Almanac, okay, and the people behind her sound like they're at a Springsteen concert," the governor said Friday. "Which just speaks to how frustrating and annoying and unhelpful a lot of this stuff is."
Baker also announced that his administration will file an economic development bill "shortly" - Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash at a separate event said it's coming next Thursday - which will include a reauthorization and expansion of the $85 million MassWorks infrastructure program.
The governor said his budget, which is due to be filed on Wednesday, will include "significant funding" for state and local police, district attorneys and the attorney general to expand efforts to disrupt drug trafficking, particularly of heroin, in the state's medium-sized cities.
"I think targeted investments in that can yield some big benefits for all of those communities," Baker told reporters after his speech. "If you talk to most of the folks who have told us that, for them, this is a real issue right now, it's typically those kinds of communities, so that's probably where we'll make the investment."
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