From the Beacon, January 2020

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

As we ring in 2020 with family and friends, our schedules are always the busiest because we are working on current priorities with one hand, and using the other to lay the groundwork for a successful New Year – a true juggling act.

For the MMA’s leadership, this means devoting many hours to reach agreement on the major priorities for local government for the 2020 legislative session and the fiscal 2021 budget process, addressing the urgent issues confronting cities and towns. The key challenge in this regard 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 leaned in to review, analyze, discuss and reach agreement on five key areas of focus for next year. Before going further, it’s important to note that MMA leaders and staff will continue to press hard on dozens of important policy matters that affect cities and towns, from emerging challenges in recycling and solid waste, to OPEB reform, to fighting unfunded mandates, and everything in between. But we also know that several issues must rise to the top because of the magnitude of impact they have on large numbers of localities.

The result is 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 a quick 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 2021 state budget, including continued success in achieving revenue sharing as the baseline to have Unrestricted General Government Aid grow at the same rate as state tax revenues, and urging the Commonwealth to fund all budget commitments.

2. Ensuring a stronger education funding partnership beyond fixing the foundation budget
Passage of the new Student Opportunity Act has fixed long-known gaps in the Chapter 70 school aid formula by ensuring adequate weight for special education expenses and the cost of health benefits for school personnel, and the additional resources needed to educate English learners and economically challenged students. These are important changes that will benefit those communities and school districts that have high numbers of low-income students, which is where most of the new money will be targeted. Most cities, towns and school districts will remain minimum-aid-only and will not see immediate benefits. That is why the MMA has been clear throughout this process that the Student Opportunity Act must be accompanied by a broader set of commitments to ensure that no city, town or school district is left behind, and all communities have adequate state-funded resources.

In particular, the MMA Board has identified five ongoing education funding priorities in addition to implementing the Chapter 70 formula improvements, all of which are needed to ensure that the Commonwealth moves closer to the MMA’s overall goal of having the state serve as a 50-50 partner in funding public education:

Minimum aid must be higher: The $30 per-student minimum aid commitment in the law is far too low and will translate into below-inflation aid increases every year for a majority of school districts, impeding education achievement in these communities, which is why MMA members have called for minimum aid increases of at least $100 per student, so that no school system or student is left behind.

The flawed charter school finance system must be reformed: The Student Opportunity Act contains language to phase in full funding of the charter school reimbursement program over three years, but the new law did not address the serious flaws in the charter school funding framework, and without further reform, many districts will continue to see their charter assessments rise faster than new aid, making them “net negative” each year, and forcing deep financial pain on the 95% of the students who remain in the traditional public school setting. The charter school reimbursement account is inadequate, even if it is fully funded. Instead, the state must pass a circuit-breaker law to limit the Chapter 70 aid lost to charter schools.

The Special Education Circuit Breaker must be fully funded every year: We applaud the Legislature’s decision to expand the program to include transportation costs, and to commit to full funding of the account. Maintaining this will be an important priority to benefit all school districts.

Transportation for regional schools and homeless students must be fully funded every year: While these important reimbursement accounts have increased somewhat in recent years, they are still far below full funding. Fulfilling the state’s funding obligation is an urgent need.

Assisting rural schools: In many parts of the state, rural school districts are struggling mightily due to declining enrollments. Merging with other districts is not a feasible option due to the larger distances that students would have to travel. Rural schools’ unique challenges must be adequately recognized within the Chapter 70 formula.

3. Winning adequate funding for Chapter 90
For several years now, the MMA has called on state officials to permanently fund Chapter 90 at $300 million a year, and to release the funds in a timely fashion. We were able to achieve $300 million in funding for the fiscal 2016 construction year, yet funding in the last four years (fiscal 2017-2020), has slipped back to $200 million, although the Legislature added $40 million in supplemental cash funding for fiscal 2019, and another $20 million for fiscal 2020, both from year-end state surpluses. The context is made more difficult because the state’s transportation funding woes continue, and there are not enough tax dollars to support highway and public transportation needs. The MMA’s call for a five-year, $300 million per year Chapter 90 authorization has not yet been embraced by the governor or the Legislature, so our work must continue to achieve our long-term goal. Immediate attention this year was on winning passage of a multiyear bond bill, and the frustrating result was passage of a very late one-year bill.

The MMA is working with a large group of stakeholder organizations – The Transportation Table (T3) – that is endorsing new state revenues to invest in transportation, with $100 million of these funds dedicated to increasing Chapter 90 funding up to $300 million a year. This is a positive development. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has indicated that the House may debate a transportation revenue package in early 2020. If so, Chapter 90 must be included, so that every region of Massachusetts is able to benefit with improved and safer local roads.

4. Protecting local zoning authority
The MMA strongly opposes 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 greater housing production and affordability while preserving local decision-making authority, making it clear that we will continue to oppose any amendments or bills to preempt or interfere with local zoning decisions.

5. Funding for environmental and climate-related infrastructure needs
The MMA’s agenda is to win long-term state and federal funding and regulatory support that allows cities and towns to build, repair and maintain our legacy environmental infrastructure systems – drinking water, wastewater and stormwater – and to address the threat of climate change by winning state funding and support to make municipal infrastructure systems and assets resilient to the effects of global warming. Environmental infrastructure has been a top priority in the past, and the Board has elevated it to the forefront again, in recognition of the massive unfunded cost of maintaining our legacy systems, especially in light of emerging challenges such as PFAS, and in recognition of the urgent need to move forward on climate mitigation and adaptation strategies and investments to protect and prepare our communities.

As we look ahead to 2020, it is 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 here 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 2020.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO