With the House expected to debate next year’s budget the week of April 26, public education funding is shaping up to be one of the most prominent topics of discussion.
Lawmakers and educators are concerned over the enrollment numbers budget writers used to implement the Student Opportunity Act, which was intended to pump $1.5 billion into K-12 districts over seven years when it was passed in 2019.
House leaders, in their annual budget recommendation released Wednesday, proposed a $219.6 million increase in aid to districts as they seek to implement that law. But the use of October 2020 enrollment numbers, which counted 37,396 fewer students than in October 2019, means districts would miss out on $130 million that they could have received under 2019 numbers, critics say.
Believing that many of the students who left last year will be back in classrooms by the fall, a group of lawmakers in the Gateway Cities Caucus and Progressive Caucus — which state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, co-chairs — are “looking at all options” to make up the difference, Farley-Bouvier said. Budget amendments are due at 5 p.m. Friday.
And as affordability challenges have reduced public higher education enrollments, getting the state to invest more in public colleges and universities is a priority for some, including state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said the House proposal fails to begin “desperately needed” reinvestment in public higher education.
“The essentially level-funded budgeting for public higher education is inadequate for addressing major issues such as student debt and pay equity and benefits for adjunct faculty,” Najimy said in a statement.
The budget recommendation from House leaders notably left out major proposals to raise new revenue.
Gov. Charlie Baker had included in his January recommendation a measure to penalize pharmaceutical companies for drug price increases considered to be excessive. The House itself had made a push for legalized sports betting in a January economic development bill, and many representatives expressed disappointment when the Senate left sports betting out of that bill.
Still, the House recommendation — buoyed by higher-than-expected tax collections and federal reimbursements — would avoid spending cuts and allocate $1.792 billion, or 3.9 percent, more than what Baker proposed in January. It’s uncertain how much attention revenue proposals will generate in the House debate.
Farley-Bouvier said the Progressive Caucus, which last year pushed to eliminate corporate tax loopholes in an effort to avoid budget cuts, is now focusing its revenue-related work on getting the Fair Share amendment onto the ballot for a 2022 vote.
The Senate revenue working group, led by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, still plans to release its recommendations this spring, Hinds told The Eagle. He said, however, that the increased tax collections and federal reimbursements have altered the revenue picture.
“There’s a lot of good work that’s been done in that group, but we’re conscious that landscape has been fundamentally changed throughout this process, including most recently the large amounts of federal financial support,” Hinds said.
During budget debates last year, Hinds had said that the group would recommend new revenue proposals this year, when he said lawmakers were anticipating reduced federal aid and a greater need for revenue. He had hinted that the budget could represent “a possible vehicle” for sports betting and other revenue proposals.
Neither the budget recommendations from Baker nor House leaders include the $4.5 billion in aid to the state from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Some lawmakers have expressed hope that those funds will be distributed through a supplemental budget, a process that would give them a chance to debate and amend allocations.
As the state’s vaccine rollout has taken up much of the spotlight, Massachusetts has emerged, somewhat quietly, as a key battleground in the fight over labor rights for gig workers.
Uber, Lyft and DoorDash poured more than $200 million into a California ballot question that passed in November. Proposition 22 solidified the classification of drivers as “independent contractors,” excluding them from benefits and protections — health care, paid sick time and unemployment insurance, for instance — that state law requires for those classified as “employees.”
That fight has now reached Massachusetts, where drivers have protested a bill that many see as a “Proposition 22 clone.” Indeed, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are among the 12 founding members of the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, which is pushing for the bill.
The battle also follows a lawsuit Attorney General Maura Healey filed against Uber and Lyft in July, alleging that the companies use the “independent contractor” designation to get around state laws regulating wages and hours.
State Reps. Mark Cusack, D-Braintree, and Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, filed the Massachusetts bill. The proposal would establish “portable benefit accounts for app-based drivers,” and it aims for flexibility, Cusack told the State House News Service. But, drivers see the bill as “a massive restriction of drivers’ rights disguised within the shell of some insignificant portable benefits,” Henry De Groot, executive director of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, has said. The group, an 800-member independent organization of rideshare drivers in the greater Boston area, led the March protest.
De Groot has filed a separate bill, for which the group consulted drivers from across the state, which seeks to provide drivers a minimum wage over $20 an hour, a right to employee benefits and a right to a union, among other protections.