From the Beacon, December 2018

It’s hard to believe that the holidays are coming so quickly. May the joy of the season be with you and your loved ones!

As we prepare to celebrate with family and friends, this time of year is always a juggling act, as we are working on current priorities with one hand and using the other to lay the groundwork for a successful New Year.

For the MMA’s leadership, this means devoting many hours to reaching agreement on the major priorities for local government for the 2019 legislative session and the fiscal 2020 budget process in order to address the urgent issues confronting cities and towns. The key challenge is to advance a powerful and effective agenda that reflects the broad consensus and needs of all communities.

In October and November, the members of the MMA Board of Directors leaned in to review, analyze, discuss and reach agreement on five key areas of focus for next year. (Before going further, I must emphasize that MMA leaders and staff will continue to press hard on dozens of important policy matters that affect cities and towns, from short-term “Airbnb” rentals, to school transportation costs, to small cell zoning, to local option revenues, to dealing with the emerging challenges in recycling, and everything in between. But there are several issues that must rise to the top because of the magnitude of impact they have on large numbers of municipalities.)

MMA leaders reached a solid consensus that will guide us during the year ahead. Our five areas of emphasis closely match the priorities we set last year, meaning that the MMA has been on the right track and will continue to pursue progress on these policy needs.

Here’s an overview:

1. Full funding of all state commitments to cities and towns. Since the fiscal health of all cities and towns is fundamental to our economy and quality of life, the MMA will continue to give top priority to full funding of local aid and all municipal and education budget accounts in the fiscal 2020 state budget. This means continued success in revenue sharing, with Unrestricted General Government Aid increasing at the same rate as state tax revenue growth, and urging the Commonwealth to fully fund all of its commitments, from special education costs to school transportation to PILOT payments, and everything in between.

2. A stronger education funding partnership. The MMA’s goal is to increase municipal resources needed to deliver essential school services in two critical ways: 1) by addressing major gaps in education funding with implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommendations to ensure that Chapter 70 is adequate to meet local needs, and 2) by achieving a long-term goal of 50-50 state-local funding – with core components of this effort including a permanent overhaul of the entire charter school funding system; ensuring adequate weight for special education, employee benefits, English language learners, and low-income students in the formula; dealing with inequity issues in regional and vocational districts; and achieving adequate minimum aid increases for all districts.

3. Reauthorizing Chapter 90 funding for local roads. The MMA’s goal is to provide cities and towns with the resources necessary to repair, rebuild and maintain 30,000 miles of local roads by winning a timely, multiyear bond authorization of at least $300 million per year, indexed to grow with inflation. The MMA’s latest estimate is that the annual cost of bringing local roads up to a state of good repair is $685 million statewide, and Chapter 90 is the best way for cities and towns to receive a fair share of the gas tax to supplement limited property tax dollars. The longer Chapter 90 stays fixed at $200 million a year, the longer our roads will remain in poor condition, and the costlier it will be for all taxpayers.

4. Promoting solutions to the OPEB funding crisis. The MMA’s goal is to advance meaningful reforms that will address the more-than-$30 billion unfunded municipal OPEB liability that threatens to undermine the long-term finances of cities and towns. This process includes educating and re-educating state officials on the scope of the problem and the need for action, and working with stakeholders, the Legislature, and the governor to advance reform legislation to address the issue. An effective reform package must preserve all existing municipal authority to manage retiree health costs, reject any new mandates or burdens on local taxpayers, and establish vesting timelines that are fair and affordable.

Growing OPEB costs are consuming an ever-higher percentage of municipal and school budgets, crowding out essential services for taxpayers and the jobs of existing and future employees. The longer that we postpone reform, the greater the damage will be to our fiscal future.

5. Protecting local zoning authority and advancing local housing production efforts. The MMA’s goal is to strongly oppose state-mandated intrusions that would override inherently local decision-making and home rule, while advocating for appropriate tools and updates to improve existing zoning and planning statutes. The MMA Board has reaffirmed its leadership-level support for the Housing Choices Act, which would achieve the balance of facilitating housing production while preserving local decision-making authority. As I noted in last month’s Beacon, passage of this legislation is possible in December and does not need to be delayed into next year’s session.

We continue to urge the Legislature to act in informal session to pass H. 4290, the Joint Committee on Housing’s version of the Housing Choices Act. The major change envisioned in the bill is lowering the approval threshold for housing-related zoning provisions from two-thirds to a simple majority. Passing the bill in December would allow the 293 communities with a town meeting form of government to consider updating their zoning in 2019. Postponing the bill into 2019 will delay local housing production initiatives in all of these communities into 2020 or beyond, since nearly all town meetings are called into session just once or twice a year, in the spring and fall.

If the bill is not enacted this month, we will continue to work hard for its passage, although the preferred course is action now.

As we look ahead to 2019, it’s clear that cities and towns have major needs because they provide the building blocks for our economy and the high quality of life that makes Massachusetts a special place. Communities educate our children, provide the majority of our transportation system, and establish the conditions for housing and sustainable development and growth. Cities and towns are on the front lines of public safety, the opioid crisis, environmental stewardship, and so much more.

The five priorities outlined above will leverage success in the full range of services that taxpayers rightly deserve and demand. The MMA’s leaders have done us a great service by identifying an impactful and meaningful agenda.

On behalf of all the staff at the MMA, we wish you peace and joy in the New Year, and look forward to working together on these issues – and more – for continued progress in 2019.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO