Legislature re-enacts transportation finance bill, veto overrides expected

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By wide margins in each branch, the Legislature today re-enacted a five-year transportation finance package that raises revenue that lawmakers used to balance the fiscal 2014 state budget.

In doing so, legislators rejected an amendment filed by the governor that would have further raised the gas tax if tolls on the western portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike are removed three or four years from now.

The governor is vowing to veto the re-enacted revenue bill, since his amendment was not adopted, but legislative support for the package was well beyond the two-thirds majority that would be necessary to override his veto.

The contentious issue of additional revenue has left the state budget in limbo – and cities and towns without the final word on the nearly $1 billion main municipal aid account – some three weeks into the fiscal year.

On July 12, the governor signed into law a budget bill that includes much of what the Legislature had appropriated for school aid accounts and most municipal accounts this year. But he cut $177 million – almost 20 percent – from Unrestricted General Government Aid and $240 million from transportation-related accounts in the budget bill because the Legislature had not delivered a separate revenue bill that he felt he could sign.

The Legislature had approved a transportation finance bill in late June, but the governor returned it with proposed amendments, leaving the $3 billion revenue package unresolved and the budget bill short of revenue.

In July 15 letter to all House and Senate members, the MMA urged the Legislature to finalize the transportation bill and override the municipal aid veto as quickly as possible to restore stability to local budgets and eliminate the possibility of widespread cuts in municipal services.

As the governor signed the budget and made his vetoes, there were strong indications that the cuts would be reversed quickly. House Speaker Robert DeLeo immediately released a statement saying that the House would protect cities and towns.

“We passed a budget that addresses key transportation needs, provides funding to our municipalities and makes key investments in higher education and community colleges, and we will again vote next week to maintain that commitment,” he said.

Both the House and Senate scheduled sessions through the end of July to take up the finance bill and budget vetoes.

In a letter to municipal officials, the governor said that he supported the local aid funding approved by the Legislature and hoped that his spending reductions were temporary. He explained a proposed mechanism to automatically restore the funding if the Legislature enacted his amendments to the transportation finance bill.

The final budget bill enacted by the Legislature increased funding for the Cherry Sheet UGGA account by $21 million to $920 million, which the governor reduced to $743 million.

The governor signed the $130 million increase in Chapter 70 education aid (to $4.3 billion), using a formula that ensures that all districts are able to reach the foundation level of spending. The formula also phases in another year toward the target share fairness goal and guarantees that every district will receive at least $25 per student in new aid.

The governor signed the appropriation to fully fund the estimated state share of the special education “circuit breaker” program at $253 million, an increase of $10 million over the current fiscal 2013 level of funding, and signed a $6 million increase in reimbursements to regional school districts for student transportation costs.

Final municipal and school aid numbers based on the fiscal 2014 general appropriations law signed by the governor were posted on the Division of Local Services and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education websites.

In addition to the appropriation items, there are a number of important law changes included in the budget act that affect cites and towns.

The governor signed language, opposed by the MMA, that would weaken the current statutory 10-mile residency requirement for police officers and firefighters in civil service cities and towns and allow an extended residency limit through collective bargaining.

The governor also signed into law language to raise the Chapter 30B public procurement threshold for use of the “sound business practice” standard for purchases of supplies and services from $5,000 to $10,000.
Written by MMA Publications Editor & Web Director John Ouellette