Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My View: A Budget That Continues To Grow Should Be Able To Deliver On What Is Best For Our Municipalities

Today, we present the third installment in our series dedicated to the eight public hearings for the Commonwealth’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget. This edition of My View comes to us from Representative Geoff Diehl.

Yesterday’s third Fiscal Year 2014 Ways and Means hearing featured state Education agencies and stakeholders, as well as the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) analysis regarding Local Aid. Everyone reading The Capitol View is aware, I’m sure, of how critical the funding of Chapter 70 for education and UGGA (Local Aid) is for the cities and towns we live in. As a former member of my town’s finance committee, the continual cuts by the state were the tipping point for my decision to run for office. I join my Republican colleagues in our ongoing quest to find ways to meet the continued challenge to funding in both these areas without the need to further impact taxpayers already stretched by new Federal payroll taxes, rising consumer costs and depressed home values.

While listening to the Secretary of Education, Matthew Malone, I was heartened by his testimony which was highlighted by his recognition for a need to reform the current Ch. 70 funding formula; specifically, the increase of the special education per-pupil component from $25K to $35K and the uncapping of the pre-school enrollment so that districts that choose to offer this can have it reflected in their foundation budget. I am also pleased to know that Secretary Malone, a product of Vocational Technical education, recognizes the need to increase capacity for VocTechs around the state, which are delivering well above average academically and are graduating students who are focused on careers right after graduation, or on a post-graduate degree that is highly specific to a field in which they want to work. In Massachusetts, we offer only about ½ of the slots for vocational education that are offered in most other countries, plus many of these students have a high propensity to earn graduate degrees in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, something also lacking in our state.

Some of the problems that continue to plague education in the Commonwealth are the unfunded mandates, a view expressed by many members of the Ways & Means Committee. Regional school transportation reimbursement is down around 55 – 60%, charter school reimbursement is also around 60%, and busing for homeless students (a federal requirement under the McKinney-Vento Act) was cut by 45%, all impacting the cities and towns that have to make up the difference. We also have 43 schools across the state in Level 4 turnaround status, including the receivership status of the entire Lawrence public school system.

The solution by the Governor is to increase spending in education by $550M in FY14 and ramp up over the next four years new spending to the tune of $1B annually. This would be to pay, not only for shortfalls in Chapter 70, but also to expand programs such as early education and to allow for over $1B in new UMass facility construction planned for the future. It also will cover the cost for Massachusetts to integrate into the national “Common Core” standards, including new PARCC testing that will replace MCAS.

On the surface, these goals are notable and would certainly contribute to better educational outcomes across the state. But I’ve stated in the past that I feel that, until we do a thorough adequacy study of the Chapter 70 funding formula, a 20+ year old plan that no longer accounts for shift of economy, demographics and changes in education, we are not wisely spending valuable taxpayer money where it is needed most.

Along those lines, testimony provided by the MMA’s Geoff Beckwith was also slightly damning about the way a proposed $31M in unrestricted local aid would be dispersed to towns. The money would come as a segregated account, including language that grants the Governor’s A&F department to require certain performance criteria. To that end, argued Mr. Beckwith, it is not truly “unrestricted” local aid and could not be counted on by cities and towns for their annual budget, since it may not be counted upon each year.

Additional concerns by the MMA are things we’ve heard often but bear strenuous repeating; the need to report to cities and towns a consensus UGGA commitment as soon as possible to allow for local budgeting; the need to address massive OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) – specifically, retiree healthcare commitments, and the need for the Legislature to increase Chapter 90 funding by $100M and also to authorize its spending as close to April 1st as possible.

The bottom line from this hearing, in my opinion, is that there is a lot of help needed by our municipalities to deliver on the basic services we expect as citizens of the Commonwealth, including a quality education, and the state is still having great difficulty in meeting those goals. I feel that a reprioritization is required on where the state chooses to spend its money, because an annual budget that has grown by over $1B per year over the last decade should be able to deliver on what is best for our cities and towns, the places we call home and where we look to build a better future for our families.