Without cutting services or raising taxes on individuals, Massachusetts House leaders have proposed to increase spending to $47.65 billion in their Wednesday budget recommendation for the 2022 fiscal year.
That spending level marks a 2.6 percent increase from the current year’s budget and a 3.9 percent increase from what Gov. Charlie Baker proposed in January, although some lawmakers still have concerns with public education funding levels. Higher-than-expected revenue collections and increased federal health care reimbursements allow for the $1.189 billion bump in spending from this year’s budget, lawmakers said.
The state’s revenue picture has improved to a point that is “not a place we thought we would be a year ago,” said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which released the recommendation.
Barrett said the proposal “touches every area that needs to be addressed,” including education, workforce development, and aid to struggling landlords and renters. State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, called it “a very healthy budget” that fills immediate needs while seeking long-term economic stability.
“It’s going to be on time, [and] it’s going to be focused on getting people back to work and getting schools, students and teachers back to school by the fall,” said Pignatelli, who praised funding levels for the cultural sector, as well as for Department of Conservation and Recreation parks and other environment-related spending.
State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, also praised many investments made in the budget, but each identified areas where they would like to see greater support.
“I think we have a lot more work to do when it comes to funding for public higher education, and I am planning on filing language to help with our local children’s advocacy centers as well,” Mark said.
Children’s advocacy centers, including Berkshire County Kids’ Place in Pittsfield, seek to help children and families recover from trauma and abuse.
Sufficient funding for the Student Opportunity Act, Farley-Bouvier said, remains a cause for concern despite an agreement between House and Senate leaders to raise Chapter 70 aid to schools by $219.6 million from this year, more than the $197.7 million increase Baker had recommended.
The Student Opportunity Act, signed in 2019 and billed as a win for districts with low-income students, was set to add $1.5 billion in aid to K-12 schools, phased in over seven years. While the state held off on funding the first year because of a pandemic-related hit to revenue collection, lawmakers proposed to fund one-sixth of the act in next year’s budget to remain on track to reach full funding by 2027.
The budget recommendation proposes to base funding off October 2020 enrollment numbers, though, when districts saw 37,396 fewer students than in the previous year, as some students took on jobs and some parents pursued home-schooling or held their kindergartners out of starting school. Many of those students are expected to return to school in the upcoming year.
While the budget includes a $40 million reserve fund for districts that experienced a pandemic-related decline in enrollments, Farley-Bouvier said an additional $90 million, for a total of $130 million, would be needed to cover the gap.
“I’m also extremely concerned that school districts will not be able to budget for this,” Farley-Bouvier said, adding that Pittsfield would miss out on hundreds of thousands because of a 249-student decline. “How do you plan your programming when you don’t know what additional funds you’re going to get until the middle of the year? And we don’t know how the $40 million is going to be distributed.”
With a group of lawmakers in the Gateway Cities Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, which she co-chairs, Farley-Bouvier said she is engaging in conversations with House leaders on the funding difference.
Representatives have until Friday to propose amendments, and debate is expected to take place the week of April 26.
The budget recommendation left out two prominent proposals to raise new revenue: a Baker proposal to penalize pharmaceutical companies for drug price increases deemed to be excessive, as well as legalized sports betting, which has the potential to bring in $20 million to $35 million of annual revenue.
The Progressive Caucus’ top revenue priority is to put the Fair Share Amendment, which would levy an additional tax of 4 percentage points for people making over $1 million, on the ballot for a 2022 vote, Farley-Bouvier said.
Some of the need for more spending, lawmakers said, is a result of hardships tied to the pandemic.
“Funding for local opioid abuse services was included once again and also represents a need that has only increased during COVID,” Mark said. “Funding for environmental services, including training programs for jobs in the offshore wind energy sector, will be an important part of our focus on workforce recovery and growth post-pandemic.”
The recommendation includes $5 million for “local tourism recovery marketing,” a provision for which Barrett said he sent a “special thank-you” to House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, D-Boston. Lost revenue from the struggling tourist economy has hurt northern Berkshire communities, Barrett said.
The budget recommendation would draw $1.87 billion from the $3.5 billion in the state’s “rainy day” fund, although it doesn’t use the $4.5 billion that the state government received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Some lawmakers have expressed hope that the federal money will be allocated in a supplemental budget that lawmakers could debate and amend, although the Baker administration has not committed to filing one.