From the Beacon, Summer 2018

With the 2017-2018 legislative session drawing to a close at the end of July, lawmakers have been working hard to complete action on major priorities in an action-filled rush to beat the calendar. During these final days, it will be important to avoid imposing new mandates and requirements on cities and towns.

The very good news is that, unlike the past two years, the state’s overall revenue condition has improved markedly. Financially, this presents an opportunity to address key needs for cities and towns.

State revenues in fiscal 2018 exceeded original estimates by more than $1 billion, which created breathing room in both the fiscal 2018 and 2019 budgets.

At press time, the Legislature was voting to enact a new budget for fiscal 2019 that provides cities and towns with $104 million more for key K-12 education and municipal accounts than the amount proposed by the governor in January. This includes $57 million more for Chapter 70 school aid, $28.2 million more for the Special Education Circuit Breaker, $9.5 million more for charter school reimbursements, $7.4 million more for regional school transportation, and $1.73 million more for payments-in-lieu-of-taxes.

The Legislature’s outstanding work to boost local aid is in addition to the very popular $37.2 million increase in unrestricted municipal aid, as well as the $103 million increase in Chapter 70 that the governor originally proposed.

And because state tax collections increased substantially during fiscal 2018, the governor and legislators will have another opportunity to provide direct local aid in the budget bill that must pass to close out that year.

Gov. Charlie Baker started this process in mid-July by filing a supplemental budget to fully fund special education reimbursements with an additional $12.5 million for fiscal 2018. He also proposed a one-time cash-based disbursement of $40 million in Chapter 90 distributions for the maintenance of municipal roads and bridges.

The MMA is working hard to support these important funding priorities, and is also pressing for passage of much-needed funds to close the shortfall in charter school reimbursements.

Beyond funding vital local aid and state budget needs, the final days of the Legislature’s session will be jam-packed with calls for action on a wide range of public policy issues. Some of these are not controversial, while others are hotly contested with broad disagreement. Countless stakeholder groups, special interests, and organizations are imploring legislators to act on hundreds of bills. Dozens of these will pass.

The pressure is immense, because beginning on Aug. 1 the Legislature will only be able to act on measures that have unanimous support of the members. That is why the July deadline brings such a flurry of activity.

Cities and towns must always be on guard at this time of the year, because special interest groups and single-issue organizations will mount aggressive campaigns to prevail at the State House. The reality is that with so little time left in the session, it is very hard for legislators to fully evaluate and vet all issues. Yet they must do so, especially when it comes to protecting cities, towns and local taxpayers from unfunded mandates, unrealistic and impractical directives, or one-size-fits-all prescriptions, preemptions or intrusions on local decision-making.

Here are just two examples:

First, on housing, the MMA is supporting the governor’s Housing Choice bill, which would make it easier for communities to enact local zoning changes to encourage housing development.

The bill would change the vote for many housing-related zoning updates and special permits to a simple majority from the current two-thirds supermajority. This would preserve decision-making authority for town meetings and city and town councils, and make it easier to respond to community-based housing needs in a way that is appropriate for the city or town.

There is broad support for the governor’s housing bill, but some housing and growth interest groups are demanding that the Legislature override local zoning and impose state-mandated zoning changes for accessory dwelling units or high-density multi-family developments in neighborhoods. Currently, zoning decisions are made by local citizens, mostly in open town meetings, or by citizen volunteers who are elected to representative town meetings, or local councils. The activists are asking the Legislature to disenfranchise local citizens by imposing a state-set zoning scheme onto neighborhoods, taking away the ability of city and town residents to make these decisions locally.

Zoning is very complex, and even simple-sounding mandates would lead to a great many unintended and disruptive consequences throughout the state. As the session closes, lawmakers should reject this call to trample community-based decisions, and embrace the governor’s sensible bill to increase housing while protecting local authority.

The second example is in the pending environmental bond bill. The Senate added a sweeping provision to mandate that communities reduce the amount of solid waste generated by local residents, primarily through expanded municipal recycling mandates. But the reality is that the global and regional markets for reselling certain recycled materials have crashed, and communities are facing drastically increased costs, driven largely by a policy change in China that limits the amount of contaminants the country will allow in shipments of recyclable materials.

The Senate amendment would worsen the problem for cities and towns. With the supply of recyclables exceeding the demand, China’s new policy is changing the financial dynamics for cities and towns negotiating recycling contracts. This is a major problem that should be thoroughly examined and understood by all stakeholders.

The Senate provision, however, would impose costly mandates on cities and towns to meet waste reduction targets and increase the administrative burden on municipalities through new requirements.

In order to increase recycling rates and reduce solid waste, municipalities need the flexibility to determine what system is best for their particular community and should receive adequate funding from the state to institute comprehensive programs. Further, the reporting requirements would be difficult to comply with, especially for smaller communities that have limited staff.

The final bond bill should not impose unfunded mandates on municipalities and their taxpayers. Instead, the MMA supports additional study to examine municipal solid waste and recycling operations and the impact of the changing markets, with the goal of developing a state-local partnership that provides communities with resources, not unaffordable dictates.

Most private-sector folks are relaxing and enjoying summer weather. But for the state and local officials who work for the public, this is an extremely busy and sensitive time of the year. We are asking the Legislature to safeguard cities and towns during the waning days of the session.

Lawmakers are doing meaningful and vital work, and talking with their municipal leaders will be an important way to ensure that the close of the session builds stronger financial security for municipal and school budgets, and protects local citizens and taxpayers from last-minute efforts to weaken local decision-making. Accomplishing these goals will result in another outstanding and productive legislative session.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO