DEAR DENNIS: Absolutely. First, a little background. In July, the Massachusetts legislature passed the budget for fiscal 2020, which started on July 1, 2019. That budget appropriated around $43 billion. I secured $1.44 million in earmarks in direct spending in our district, while also fighting for key spending provisions in budget line items that are important to constituents and our Commonwealth.
While executive director of National Priorities Project, I said often that a budget represents our collective values in numbers. That thinking continues to ring truer than ever.
Two weeks ago, the Senate passed what we call a “closeout supp,” short for “supplemental budget.” The Senate’s version was $779.8 million. Think of this budget as closing out the books on fiscal 2019.
Before we go further, it’s important for me to share three things:
First, this year tax revenues were up, but that volatility cuts both ways, and can produce a windfall or deficit in any given year. In 2017, analysts believe that Trump’s election depressed state revenue collections, as businesses and consumers held off on big transactions in hopes of being able to conduct business under a lower tax rate if Trump’s promised tax cuts materialized. That forced the state to slash $733 million in spending.
Second, whenever we talk about tax revenue, we have to keep in mind that our state collected an estimated $5.95 billion less in revenue in 2019 than it would have. That’s because of tax breaks for major corporations and the ultra, ultra, ultra wealthy.
And third, we must resist fully embracing the word “supplemental” in a budget context — even though that’s the technical term the state uses. A “supplemental budget” triggers the notion that we have “extra” or “surplus” funding in the state that we can spread around on top of a baseline of adequate spending. That is absolutely not the case for nearly every issue area that you and I care about, like education, the environment and health care.
With these cautions in mind, I’ll go back to the “closeout supp” and your question of how our region fared.
The short answer is: We will benefit from spending inside big line items and in the form of direct spending via earmarks legislators secured. I can’t list all the investments, so I’ll just highlight a few:
- $5.1 million to regional school transportation, which means the state will spend 85 percent of the promised 100 percent reimbursement to school districts.
- $60 million to cities and towns in Chapter 90 funding to improve local roads and bridges, though there’s still a huge gap in what’s actually needed.
- $35 million more for the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust to help finance improvements to local water systems. And here, let me just say the need is tremendous — so large, in fact, that I will join Rep. Natalie Blais to host federal, state and municipal officials at a forum Friday in Whately to discus water and sewer issues.
- $250,000 in direct local program spending, which I secured in partnership with House allies.
This budget also had what are called “outside sections,” or policies which are attached as part of the bill. And with “outside sections,” sometimes what’s not in the bill is as important as what is. Major kudos to the Senate for not including the corporate tax cut the House included in its version of the budget. I was glad to make my strong concerns about this known to Senate leadership in the run up to our floor debate.
I was absolutely delighted that the Senate version contained a provision to allow farmers to grow hemp on land that’s under a state agricultural preservation restriction (APR). I’ve been advocating for that provision with Senate leadership for months.
I also fought for an amendment that I filed to allow for the production of CBD-related products, which are currently prohibited in Massachusetts despite the fact that they have created a lucrative market for farmers in neighboring states. As one farmer in our district said: without that provision it’s like the state is allowing her to grow artisanal tomatoes only to sell them to the ketchup factory.
I also proposed an additional $2.5 million in spending for the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which is a triple win for our region. It helps those on food assistance purchase nutritious produce, it’s a major financial boost for our farmers, and it’s a regional economic development win, as $1 in HIP spending results in an additional $1.12 in local economic impact.
This program was suspended last year when funding ran out, causing significant hardship on all sides. On the Senate floor during the budget debate, I charged my colleagues and Senate leadership to commit to not letting the program be suspended again this year.
I didn’t prevail in the CBD-related products or HIP amendments, but that doesn’t mean my efforts were in vain.
The amendments I filed gave me an opportunity to raise the issues publicly, discuss them with Senate leadership and get commitments for future action. Because while a supplemental budget may allow for some one-time spending, when it comes to fighting food insecurity, on behalf of our farmers and so much more — I’m in this for the long haul.
State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.