MMA letter to House members urges support for key budget amendments that invest in communities

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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. 4200) that benefit and support cities and towns across the Commonwealth.
 
We applaud Speaker DeLeo, Chairman Dempsey, the members of the Ways and Means Committee, and all members of the House for advancing a state budget framework to increase Unrestricted General Government Aid by $42.1 million, fund the essential requirements of Chapter 70 education aid, including increasing per-student minimum aid to $55 and securing $10 million in education funds to assist cities and towns affected by the change in how low-income students are counted, increase funding for the Special Education Circuit Breaker program, and add funds to the still-underfunded charter school reimbursements account. We recognize that making these important investments is a difficult task in very tight and challenging fiscal circumstances, and H. 4200 underscores the House of Representatives’ commitment to a strong fiscal partnership with cities and towns.
 
We need a powerful and enduring partnership between cities and towns and state government if we want to strengthen and expand 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 1,307 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 School Losses
The diversion of Chapter 70 school aid away from local public schools to fund charter schools has created a major and growing financial burden 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 2017, it is estimated that cities and towns will be assessed $537 million in local school revenues to fund charter schools, an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of all Chapter 70 dollars. With assessments at more than half a billion dollars and growing, it is critical for the state to fund its financial commitment under the law. The House Ways and Means fiscal 2017 budget would fund charter school reimbursements at $85.5 million, a welcome increase of $5 million above the fiscal 2016 level, although full funding of the statutory formula would require $134.4 million. Without these funds, cities and towns will face another major shortfall next year, which will result in cutbacks for the vast majority of students who remain in the local public school setting.
 
This year’s funding shortfall means that cities and towns are receiving a fraction of the reimbursements due according to state law, and this is impacting a large number of communities, including some the state’s poorest and most financially distressed cities and towns. Thus, the underfunding of the charter school reimbursement formula is harming the most vulnerable and challenged school districts and communities.
 
Please support Amendment 845, filed by Rep. Ultrino and others, to fully fund charter school reimbursements due to cities, towns and regional school districts by providing the full $134.4 million necessary to meet the state’s obligation. The MMA also supports Amendment 1232, filed by Rep. Malia and others, that would also add funding to this essential account. We also support the policy principle in Amendment 290, filed by Rep. Ryan, that would provide for a modest measure of direct payment for some charter school tuition amounts.
 
• Please Support Funding for Special Education Circuit Breaker Reimbursements
Municipal officials appreciate 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 House Ways and Means budget increases Circuit Breaker funding by $5 million, up to $276.7 million, with the intent of fully funding this essential program, which is very much appreciated. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education estimates that the state’s share of eligible costs next year would total about $280 million after accounting for earmarks in the account. Please support Amendment 1082, filed by Rep. Benson and others, that would further increase Circuit Breaker funding to ensure full funding.
 
• 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 2017 is estimated at $24.3 million, according to the most recent DESE projection, which far exceeds the funding level in H. 4200. Please support the several amendments related to this important account, including Amendment 353, filed by Rep. Stanley, Amendment 435, filed by Rep. Harrington, Amendment 960, filed by Rep. Rogers, and Amendment 523, filed by Rep. Cutler, 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 Education 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 $3.3 million. The House Ways and Means recommendation does not include any funding for this account. Please support Amendment 1035, 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
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 $84 million, according to DESE. We very much appreciate the House Ways and Means recommendation to increase the appropriation by $1 million next year to $60 million. Please support the amendments that would further increase funding for this account, including Amendment 791, filed by Rep. D’Emilia, Amendment 542, filed by Rep. Ferguson, and Amendment 441, filed by Rep. Harrington that would increase regional transportation reimbursements and bring fiscal 2017 funding closer to the full funding mark.
 
• Please Support Funding for Kindergarten Expansion Grants
Cities, towns and regional school districts across the Commonwealth use this important grant program to support full-day access to local kindergarten programs. The Governor in H. 2 and the House Ways and Means recommendation would level-fund this account next year at $18.6 million. Funding for the program two years ago was $23.9 million before being reduced through two rounds of 9C cuts. Please support Amendment 979, filed by Rep. Rogers, and Amendment 946, filed by Rep. Hay and others, to level-fund this account at the original fiscal 2015 level.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON MUNICIPAL AID ACCOUNTS AND MUNICIPAL MANAGEMENT POLICY
 
• Please Protect Municipal Decision-Making Authority on Health Insurance
On behalf of cities and towns across the state, we strongly oppose Amendment 705, which would interfere with local officials’ decision-making authority to act on behalf of their taxpayers on the basic issue of contribution levels for retiree health insurance. Amendment 705 would penalize all cities and towns that have used the 2011 municipal health insurance reform law to reduce the cost and financial burden of health insurance for employees, retirees and taxpayers.
 
Specifically, Amendment 705 would strip these cities and towns of their legal authority to decide whether to adjust contribution percentages for retiree health insurance by unilaterally extending a freeze in contribution ratios. There was a three-year freeze in the original consensus reform law, but, unfortunately, two years ago the freeze was extended to five years. Now, Amendment 705 would seek to extend the freeze to seven years – an unacceptable imposition on local authority that would have the state interfere with responsible health insurance policy decisions in each community.
 
Under existing law, any city or town that used Sections 22 or 23 of Chapter 32B (the 2011 municipal health insurance reform law) to implement plan design changes or join the GIC was prohibited from changing retiree health insurance contribution percentages until July 1, 2014. In 2014, the temporary freeze was extended for two more years, until July 1, 2016, for any municipality that adopted or was planning on adopting provisions of the 2011 municipal health insurance reform law.
 
Amendment 705 would reverse planned contribution changes in some cities and towns, and would delay the ability to take action on retiree contribution percentages in many others. Simply put, Amendment 705 would impose significant budget problems in many communities and interfere with sound fiscal planning. The original short-term temporary freeze was part of the compromise brokered by House leaders in 2011 that led to the enactment of the landmark municipal health insurance reform bill. Repeated extensions of the freeze runs counter to that agreement and would clearly undermine the ability of cities and towns to control health insurance costs and save municipal jobs. Please vote NO on Amendment 705.
 
• Please Support Funding for the Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program
Please support Amendment 64, filed by Rep. Madaro and others, and Amendment 902, filed by Rep. Hay, 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 64 would add $5 million and bring total funding up to $10 million.
 
• Please Support Funding for the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative
Please support Amendment 1158, filed by Rep. Vega and others, to increase funding of the Safe and Supportive Youth Initiative from $6 million to $8.9 million. The program seeks to reduce youth violence through wraparound services for those most likely to be victims or perpetrators, and is vital to violence prevention efforts in dozens of communities.
 
• Please Support Funding for Summer Jobs for At-Risk Youth
Please support Amendment 1256, filed by Rep. Scibak and others, and Amendment 320, filed by Rep. Campanale, to increase funding for youth summer jobs. This funding is critical to providing employment opportunities for at-risk teenagers in our cities and towns, especially with youth unemployment rates climbing.
 
• Please Support Protection of Municipal Emergency Medical Services
Please support Amendment 1260, filed by Rep. Cantwell of Marshfield 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 1260 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 costs to local property taxpayers through below-cost reimbursements.
 
• Please Support Funding for Chapter 40S Payments
We support full funding of the Commonwealth’s commitment to make payments to cities and towns that approve “smart growth” zoning districts under Chapter 40R and are due school cost payments under Chapter 40S. The MMA has been a strong supporter of Chapters 40R and 40S as important tools to facilitate locally guided zoning initiatives to increase the supply of affordable and market-rate housing. This program may be small, but it is seen as a reflection of the state’s commitment to joint state-local efforts to develop affordable housing and encourage innovative zoning. Chapter 40S reimbursements are funded at $250,000 this year, and the budget offered by the Governor would maintain this funding level in fiscal 2017. H. 4200 does not include funding for this program. Please support Amendment 670, filed by Rep. Orrall, and Amendment 594, filed by Rep. Benson, that would fund the program at $500,000.
 
• Please Support Funding for Payments-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILOT)
Please support Amendment 566, 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 House Ways and Means budget would level-fund the account at this year’s level of $26.8 million. Amendment 566 would bring the account up to $30.3 million.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON CAPITAL SPENDING PRIORITIES
 
• Please Support Brownfields Redevelopment Funds
Please support Amendment 994, 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 994 would appropriate $15 million for the Brownfield Redevelopment Fund.
 
• Please Support Water Infrastructure Funding
Please support Amendment 869, filed by Rep. Dykema and others, which would increase funding for contract assistance to the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust to $65 million. Cities and towns understand the importance of investing in our Commonwealth’s water infrastructure, and this increase would aid the Clean Water Trust in providing financial support for municipal projects. Upgrading our water infrastructure in the Commonwealth is essential not only for the environment, but also would have a serious impact on public health and economic development – as we have seen nationally.
 
• Please Support Community Preservation Act Funding
Please support Amendment 813, filed by Rep. Kocot and others, that would dedicate a portion of any fiscal 2016 year-end state budget surplus, up to $25 million, to supplement the fiscal 2016 state match to municipal revenue raised from local adoption of the Community Preservation Act (CPA). The Division of Local Services (DLS) estimates that the balance in the state trust fund will be sufficient to provide a first-round match of only 19 percent of the surcharge levied by each city and town. The House has a long and distinguished record of supporting this use of surplus budget funds to leverage and enhance the success of the CPA.
 
• Please Support the Broadband Competitive Marketplace Study
Please support Amendment 269, filed by Chairman Golden and others, to create an 11-member special commission to study the progress of broadband penetration across the Commonwealth. The current lack of progress on this issue has resulted in dozens of cities and towns, especially in western Massachusetts, continuing to struggle with the disadvantages of limited or no access to broadband. Affordable and widespread broadband access is vital to economic development, and we support this legislative initiative to identify problem areas and propose solutions to this issue.
 
SUMMARY
 
Again, we would like to express our appreciation to Speaker DeLeo, Chairman Dempsey and the House Ways and Means Committee, and we respectfully ask you to build on the many favorable local aid investments in H. 4200 by supporting the key budget amendments detailed above, and opposing Amendment 705. This is a critical time for our economy, and for cities, towns and local taxpayers. Massachusetts is starting to find some new vigor in its economy, 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
MMA Executive Director & CEO