MMA letter to House members urges support for FY18 budget framework and key amendments

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Dear Representative,
 
We are writing to express our deep appreciation for the many provisions in the House Ways and Means Committee budget proposal (H. 3600) that benefit and support cities and towns across the Commonwealth.
 
We thank Speaker DeLeo, Chairman Dempsey, the members of the Ways & Means Committee, and all members of the House for advancing a state budget framework to increase Unrestricted General Government Aid by $39.9 million, fund the essential requirements of Chapter 70 education aid and begin to implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, add $12.6 million in education funds to assist cities and towns affected by the change in how low-income students are counted, and increase funding for the Special Education Circuit Breaker program. We recognize that making these important investments is a challenging task in tight fiscal circumstances, and H. 3600 underscores the House of Representatives’ commitment to a strong fiscal partnership with cities and towns.
 
We need an enduring partnership between cities and towns and state government if we want to strengthen our economy and make sure that citizens receive world-class municipal and education services, with safe streets, thriving neighborhoods and economic opportunity. Cities and towns rely heavily on municipal and education aid to provide the essential local and school services that the residents of Massachusetts deserve and expect, and adequate aid levels help to mitigate today’s overreliance on the most regressive of the major revenue sources in the state, the property tax. That is why the budget decisions you make each year are so important to our state’s prosperity and competitiveness.
 
With 1,210 amendments before you next week, there are dozens of important funding and policy proposals that would impact cities and towns, and we urgently and respectfully ask you to take action on all of these matters to support the interests of the communities you represent. Please invest in essential municipal and school programs, and please protect local government from proposals that would restrict or interfere with their management authority and decision-making powers.
 
In this letter, we have highlighted the most important and visible amendments that impact cities and towns:
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON SCHOOL AND EDUCATION FUNDING
 
• Please Support Funding for Reimbursements for Charter Schools Losses
The rapidly growing deduction of Chapter 70 school aid from local public schools to support charter schools has become a major financial drain on cities and towns, a problem made more acute as the state grants more charters and existing charter schools expand. Local officials strongly support full funding of the Commonwealth’s statutory commitment under section 89 of Chapter 71 of the General Laws to reimburse school districts for a portion of their Chapter 70 aid that is redirected to fund charter schools.
 
For fiscal 2018, it is estimated that cities and towns will be assessed $598 million in local school revenues to fund charter schools, an increase of $65 million (12 percent) of the estimated level this year. With assessments at over half a billion dollars and growing, it is critical for the state to fund its financial commitment under the state statute. The HW&M fiscal 2018 budget would level-fund charter school reimbursements at $80.5 million. Full funding of the statutory formula would require $157 million, based on updated data released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) last week. Without these funds, cities and towns will face another round of lost school aid next year, resulting in fewer programs for the vast majority of students who remain in the local public school setting.
 
These school aid deductions are impacting a large number of communities including some the state’s poorest and most financially distressed cities and towns. Underfunding the charter school reimbursement formula harms the most vulnerable and challenged school districts and communities.
 
Please support Amendment 1068 filed by Rep. Ultrino and others to fully fund charter school reimbursements to cities, towns and regional school districts by providing $148 million estimated to be needed to meet the state’s full obligation (the updated $157 million full-funding amount from DESE was not available until after the deadline for filing amendments last Thursday). The MMA also supports Amendment 775 filed by Rep. Hunt and others that would also add funding to this essential account.
 
We also support the policy principles in Amendment 484 filed by Rep. Ryan that would provide for a modest measure of relief to local public schools and ensure a much-needed level of financial accountability for charter schools, and we support Amendment 1180 filed by Rep. Madaro that would shift payment for the facilities portion of charter school tuition to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).
 
• Please Support Funding for Special Education Circuit Breaker Reimbursements
Municipal officials know that the House has made it a priority to fully fund the Special Education Circuit Breaker program that helps cities and towns pay for a portion of the costs of high-cost special education services. The HW&M budget increases Circuit Breaker funding by $4 million, up to $281 million, which is very much appreciated. DESE estimates that the state’s share of eligible costs next year will total almost $300 million after accounting for earmarks in the account. Please support Amendment 543 filed by Rep. Benson and others that would further increase Circuit Breaker funding to provide full funding.
 
• Please Support Additional Chapter 70 School Aid
We again thank House leaders for increasing Chapter 70 minimum aid to $30 per student, which is a welcome improvement over the $20 per student amount in House One. A significant majority of school districts only receive minimum aid, which is why the minimum aid aspect of Chapter 70 is so important. More than 200 school districts (almost three-quarters of all operating districts) would receive an increase of $30 per student under H. 3600. For many districts, this would represent another year of receiving only minimum aid, which has forced a growing reliance on the property tax to fund schools that is not sustainable. Please support Amendment 739 filed by Rep. Cutler and others, which would increase the minimum aid amount to $55 per student, matching the increase you provided for fiscal 2017.
 
• Please Support Funding for McKinney-Vento Homeless Student Transportation Costs
The State Auditor ruled in 2011 that the McKinney-Vento program was an unfunded mandate on cities and towns. Under the program, cities and towns are providing very costly transportation services to bus homeless students to schools outside of the local school district. Full funding for fiscal 2018 is estimated at $24 million, according to the most recent DESE projection, which far exceeds the funding level in H. 3600. Please support the amendments related to this important account, including Amendment 619 filed by Rep. Cutler and others, and Amendment 931 filed by Rep. Hay and others that would add funding for reimbursements due to municipalities and school districts for the cost of transporting homeless students from temporary shelters to school.
 
• Please Support Funding for Out-of-District Vocational Student Transportation
Chapter 74 of the General Laws requires the state to reimburse cities and towns for the cost of transporting students to out-of-district vocational education programs. This reimbursement program recognizes the significant expense of providing transportation services for out-of-district placements, as these students must travel long distances to participate in vocational programs that are not available locally. DESE estimates that full funding of the state’s obligation next year would require $3.6 million. The HW&M recommendation would provide $250,000 in funding for this account. Please support Amendment 343 filed by Rep. Kane and others to increase funding to cover a portion of the cost of transporting students to out-of-district placements in vocational schools.
 
• Please Support Funding for Regional School District Student Transportation
We very much appreciate the HW&M recommendation to increase the appropriation by $1.0 million next year to $62 million. Funding for transportation reimbursements to regional school districts is vital to all regional districts and their member cities and towns, particularly in sparsely populated parts of the state. Decades ago, the state promised 100 percent reimbursement as an incentive for towns and cities to regionalize, and the consistent underfunding of this account has presented serious budget challenges for these districts, taking valuable dollars from the classroom. Full funding next year would require $86 million, according to DESE. Please support Amendment 673 filed by Rep. D’Emilia and others that would further increase funding for this account, and bring fiscal 2018 funding closer to the full funding mark.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON MUNICIPAL AID ACCOUNTS AND MUNICIPAL MANAGEMENT POLICY
 
• Please Support Funding for the Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program
Please support Amendment 1083 filed by Rep. Madaro and others, and Amendment 1002 filed by Rep. Hay and others to increase funding for the highly effective and valuable Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program that has helped cities and towns respond to and suppress gang-related activities. Amendment 1083 would add $5.0 million and bring total funding up to $10 million.
 
• Please Support Protection of Municipal Emergency Medical Services
Please support Amendment 948 filed by Rep. Cantwell and others that would prevent the practice of “pay the patient” by insurance companies. This practice undermines the ability of cities and towns to fund and operate responsive and efficient ambulance services that are at the core of emergency medical services in Massachusetts. “Pay the patient” would force communities to pursue their own residents to recoup thousands of dollars in ambulance expenses; it is inefficient and subject to abuse. Amendment 948 would also clarify that municipalities are authorized to set a fair rate for ambulance services. Cities and towns set fees and charges for a wide variety of municipal services, and are required by state law to match fees to the cost of providing the service. This is the same rule that would apply to rate setting for emergency ambulance services. This provision would ensure that rates are reasonable and prevent insurance companies from shifting the burden to local property taxpayers through below-cost reimbursements.
 
• Please Support Funding for Payments-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILOT)
Please support Amendment 680 filed by Rep. D’Emilia and others to add $3.5 million to increase funding of payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) to communities that host state-owned land. This is a particularly important Cherry Sheet program for the cities and towns that host and provide municipal services to state facilities that are exempt from the local property tax. The Governor’s recommendation and the HW&M budget would level-fund the account at this year’s level of $26.8 million. Amendment 680 would bring the account up to $30.3 million.
 
• Please Support Local Decision-Making on Policing and Community Relations
Please reject Amendments 883 and 891, which would impose harsh penalties on cities and towns that adopt local codes or practices related to immigrants. The nationwide debate on the role of local law enforcement in federal immigration cases is complex and constantly evolving. The position of the MMA has always been to support municipal officials in making the decisions they feel are best for their respective communities. Amendments 883 and 891 pose harsh penalties for municipalities that adopt ordinances and policies, including reducing or eliminating Unrestricted General Government Aid payments to the municipality. These amendments would compel cities and towns to comply with requests that preempt local ordinances at the expense of effective local policing. Nationally, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to use the threat of funding cuts to coerce states to comply with unrelated policies. The same principle should be honored in the case of local decisions on immigration policies here in Massachusetts.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON CAPITAL SPENDING PRIORITIES
 
• Please Support Brownfields Redevelopment Funds
Please support Amendment 920 filed by Rep. Walsh and others to increase available funding for brownfields redevelopment projects. This funding is critical to the successful redevelopment of former industrial sites and will enhance local economic development efforts across the state, and improve the environment. Amendment 920 would appropriate $15 million for the Brownfield Redevelopment Fund.
 
• Please Support Water Infrastructure Funding
Please support Amendment 932 filed by Rep. Dykema, which would make an important technical change to the appropriation language for contract assistance to the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust. This amendment would bring the budget language into conformity with the 2014 water infrastructure act and more recent regulations to allow use of funds beyond only debt service to include principal forgiveness, interest rate reduction and other means of financial assistance.
 
Cities and towns understand the importance of investing in our Commonwealth’s water infrastructure, and the Clean Water Trust aids cities and towns by providing financial support for municipal projects. Upgrading our water infrastructure in the Commonwealth is essential not only for the environment, but also protects public health and promotes economic development.
 
• Please Support NPDES Delegated Authority
Please support Amendment 355 filed by Rep. Golden and others, which would provide $1.4 million in funding for the establishment, administration and implementation of the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program. This funding would begin the process of having the Department of Environmental Protection assume “delegated authority” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the federal water quality program, which covers MS4 stormwater permits. Governor Baker has filed separate legislation, supported by the MMA, to allow MassDEP to petition the EPA for this authority. Full funding would take approximately $4.7 million.
 
• Please Support Community Preservation Act
Please support Amendment 994 filed by Rep. Honan and others, which would strengthen the Community Preservation Act by providing the flexibility needed to ensure adequate fee revenue to meet the goal of a 50 percent state match. The ability of our cities and towns to fund important CPA projects has been threatened by the steep decline in matching funds from the statewide CPA Trust Fund and this amendment would help to sustain the program.
 
• Conservation Tax Credit
Please support Amendment 381, filed by Rep. Cariddi and others, and Amendment 270, filed by Rep. Jones and others, both of which would expand the conservation land tax credit. Amendment 381 would raise the annual cap on the Conservation Land Tax Credit (CLTC) Program from $2 million annually to $10 million. It would also amend the definition of “public or private conservation agency” which may receive donations of land subject to a conservation tax credit to include realty trusts organized for conservations purposes pursuant to Chapter 203 of the General Laws. We believe that the increase in the annual cap and expanding the definition of eligible agencies would increase private land donations with widespread public benefits.
 
SUMMARY
 
Again, we would like to express our appreciation to Speaker DeLeo, Chairman Dempsey and the House Ways & Means Committee, and we respectfully ask you to build on the many favorable local aid investments in H. 3600 by supporting the key budget amendments detailed above, and opposing Amendments 883 and 891. This is a critical time for our economy, and for cities, towns and local taxpayers, yet we can only reach our full potential for statewide growth and job creation if all 351 cities and towns have the resources to adequately serve the residents and businesses of the Commonwealth. Please contact us at any time if you have any questions or need additional information by having your office reach out to me or MMA Legislative Director John Robertson at (617) 426-7272 ext. 122 or jrobertson@mma.org.
 
Thank you very much for your support, dedication and commitment to the cities and towns of Massachusetts.
 
Sincerely,
 
Geoffrey C. Beckwith
Executive Director & CEO