Local priorities to strengthen Massachusetts

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From The Beacon, February 2016
 
Thanks to a record-breaking MMA Annual Meeting, with nearly 1,200 local officials rallying together, local officials are giving momentum to a powerful set of priorities to strengthen cities and towns in every corner of Massachusetts. The next step is to translate this energy into favorable action on Beacon Hill.
 
While there are dozens of important issues for communities, five rise to the top pretty quickly: adequate funding for our schools; full and timely funding for Chapter 90 to maintain and repair local roads; passage of a balanced and workable public records bill; raising the net metering cap to allow municipal solar projects to move forward; and passage of the governor’s comprehensive “Municipal Modernization Act.”
 
Funding for our schools
Cities and towns certainly appreciate that the governor’s fiscal 2017 budget submission would provide a $42 million increase for unrestricted municipal aid. This fulfills one of his campaign promises to increase direct municipal aid by the same rate of growth as state tax revenues.
 
Yet at the same time, the governor’s budget proposes a very small increase in Chapter 70 education aid of $72 million, significantly less than in recent years. Nearly 70 percent of cities and towns would receive an increase of only $20 per student. This below-inflation increase is far too low, and would force communities to reduce school programs or further shift funds from the municipal side of the budget.
 
Chapter 70 aid needs a higher increase to ensure that all schools receive adequate funding, which the MMA believes should be at least $100 per student. We also strongly support the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission to update the Chapter 70 “foundation budget” to recognize special education and health insurance costs for school employees, and to reflect the cost of services for low-income, English Language Learner (ELL) and other students who require more intensive services. The commission recommended phasing in the changes over a four-year period, a position the MMA supports as well. Increasing minimum aid and fixing the inadequacies in the foundation formula are essential.
 
Passing Chapter 90 bond bill
Swift action is needed to keep Chapter 90 funding at an adequate level as we head into the spring construction season, which will start in less than two months. In order to ensure the timely release of Chapter 90 authorizations, the governor and Legislature will need to enact a new Chapter 90 bond bill by March at the latest. Otherwise, we could see a repeat of the frustrating and costly delays that communities experienced in 2013 and 2014.
 
The MMA is asking the state to enact a five-year Chapter 90 bond bill with $300 million in annual baseline funding. The five-year duration would provide predictability and stability, allowing communities adequate time for planning, instead of lurching year-to-year with one-year commitments on Chapter 90. This investment is essential for the state’s economic future, and necessary to save taxpayers millions of dollars in more costly projects when roads fail.
 
Passing balanced and workable public records bill
The original public records law was written before the Internet, email and digital media, so updating the act certainly makes sense. The challenge is making sure that new legislation is balanced and flexible, and that it establishes a reasonable framework for communities. Local officials are calling for balanced changes to prevent the imposition of unfunded mandates on cities and towns and to ensure that communities have enough time and flexibility to comply with the act without diverting resources and time from their other important public services and duties on behalf of local residents and taxpayers.
 
The House managed to strike this balance in November, when it passed a very strong bill that still managed to provide adequate flexibility and workability. Unfortunately, the Senate is supporting a bill that would impose shorter and stricter timelines, would limit and set conditions on the fees that cities and towns can charge, and would create a more litigious process that would require the courts to award attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs in some circumstances.
 
The Senate bill would impose unrealistically short timelines that would be extremely difficult for communities to meet, would limit fees and therefore impose an unfunded mandate on cities and towns, and would expose public entities and taxpayers to the threat of expensive litigation and punishing penalties, even when communities are making a good faith effort to comply.
 
We need lawmakers to understand that a strong public records law is important, but it must be workable and feasible. The public interest is not well served by passing bills that sound good but cannot be implemented without draining resources from other important public responsibilities and services. No one wants a poorly constructed, overly bureaucratic, litigious and costly law. That’s why the House version should prevail.
 
Moving solar energy forward
Massachusetts has become a true leader in solar development, and cities and towns have been the bedrock of this success, hosting solar developments on municipal property statewide. But most communities have bumped up against the net metering cap, which is stalling new renewable energy projects across the state.
 
The MMA strongly supports swift passage of legislation to lift the net metering cap on solar projects to allow all current and future municipal projects to move forward. This legislation, which is before a House-Senate conference committee, should also preserve a net metering credit at the full retail rate, with no offsetting charges by utilities that would reduce savings and undermine the financing needed to make projects economically feasible.
 
Passing the ‘Municipal Modernization Act’
Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito have filed sweeping legislation that would update and reform a wide swath of state laws governing everything from basic municipal finance and administration to local approval of liquor licenses and allowing cities and towns a first option to purchase tax-exempt property.
 
The “municipal modernization” legislation is based mainly on suggestions made by local officials on ways to make local government more efficient and less costly and to return “home rule” authority to cities and towns where it makes sense. The bill includes 249 provisions and is the most comprehensive municipal legislative proposal in history.
 
The bill would benefit nearly every aspect of local government, from day-to-day administration to economic development in our downtowns, and reflects the kind of local-state partnership that would make Massachusetts a model for the rest of the nation.
 
The four basic themes for the bill are eliminating or updating obsolete laws, promoting local independence, streamlining state oversight, and providing municipalities with greater flexibility.
 
The Legislature has divided the package into five bills and has sent them to five different committees. These bills must be reunited with each other and combined into one major package to benefit communities and local taxpayers. The Municipal Modernization Act has presented lawmakers with a unique opportunity to provide meaningful relief and reform for cities and towns, without costing the state a penny.
 
Now is the time to act on all of these municipal priorities. Taken together, this agenda would advance education, transportation, renewable energy, and government efficiency and effectiveness – and the results would strengthen all our communities and our entire state.