The House’s budget committee released two important bills yesterday as the Legislature prepares to close the books on fiscal 2020 and works on a final spending plan for the current year, which began on July 1.

Fiscal uncertainty arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the related recession has delayed the normal budget schedule by months, and these two bills mark a restart of the process. Lawmakers are working to enact these final spending bills so they can be signed by the governor by the end of this month.

FY21 budget
The House Committee on Ways and Means released a $46 billion budget bill for fiscal 2021 (H. 5150) that closely tracks the governor’s revised spending plan filed on Oct. 15 (H. 2, as revised). The bottom line is approximately $200 million higher than the governor’s proposal, funded primarily through a higher draw from the state’s reserves.

The House budget bill would level-fund Unrestricted General Government Aid at $1.13 billion and provide $5.3 billion for Chapter 70 school aid, an increase of $107 million over fiscal 2020. Both of these items are consistent with the commitment that state leaders announced in late July.

All cities, towns and school districts would receive at least the same amount of Chapter 70 aid as was allocated last year, with some slated to receive additional school aid due to normal updates to the foundation formula factors.

The Division of Local Services has said that updated preliminary Cherry Sheet amounts for cities and towns and for regional school districts will be posted online today.

When compared to the governor’s recommendations, funding for some targeted education accounts would be higher in the House proposal. The House plan would increase funding to reimburse regional school districts and charter schools for student transportation costs, bringing the account up to $82.2 million, which is $6.3 million above the revised H. 2 amount. Reimbursements for McKinney-Vento homeless student transportation costs would be funded at $13.5 million, $2.4 million above H. 2. Additional funds would be provided to a number of school programs that are not on Cherry Sheets.

The House plan would fund the special education circuit breaker at $328.4 million, approximately $16.8 million below the $345.2 million offered in H. 2, although it appears that a portion of the shortfall would be covered by $11.9 million in unspent circuit breaker funds transferred from fiscal 2020.

The House plan does not provide funding for out-of-district vocational school student transportation reimbursements.

The proposed House budget includes a new one-time $50 million appropriation (7061-0027) for grants to school districts to assist with COVID-related costs, including PPE, cleaning and hygiene supplies, expenses related to remote learning and socially distanced in-person education, and the provision of technology and other services to low-income and other vulnerable students. The grants would be based on the following formula: $25 multiplied by the district’s foundation enrollment, plus $75 multiplied by the district’s low-income enrollment. Communities would be required to hold the funds in a separate account, and the funds would be available for expenditure by school committees without appropriation at the local level.

House leadership has announced plans for the full House to take up the fiscal 2021 budget bill next Tuesday, Nov. 10.

FY20 close-out budget
The House budget committee also released a $423 million spending bill to close the books on fiscal 2020 (H. 5102). The House approved the bill last night and sent it to the Senate, which has scheduled a formal session for later today.

The close-out bill includes an appropriation of $727,170 to reimburse cities and towns for a portion of the cost of early voting for the March 3 primary election.

The bill would also reappropriate substantial unspent balances from last year for use in fiscal 2021 to help balance the current year budget, including $11.9 million for special education circuit breaker reimbursements.

H. 5102 would extend the special rule adopted earlier this year that allowed cities and towns to make payments for certain school-based contracted services (such as transportation) when services are not delivered as originally contracted.

The proposed close-out bill would also amend the so-called tolling provisions enacted earlier this year that allowed municipalities to delay public hearings on applications for permits or approvals for construction projects. Under sections 28-33 of H. 5102, the pause on required municipal actions on permits and quasi-judicial public meetings and hearings would end on Dec. 1.

When the tolling provision was first enacted, the end date was set at 45 days after the end of the public emergency.

Under H. 5102, communities that are unable to meet remotely due to lack of broadband or technology and are unable to hold in-person meetings due to public health orders regulating gatherings would be able to apply to the secretary of Housing and Economic Development for relief from the constructive approval deadlines on or subsequent to Dec. 1.