In The People's Blog

Greetings,

Late last night, the Senate took its final vote on the fiscal year 2021 budget. I wanted to make sure you had a window into the last two days of debating and voting on the budget and more than 400 amendments. You can find the Senate Ways and Means budget that we debated, here. Thank you to everyone who called and emailed with your budget priorities. You make our democracy stronger!

**Also, if you haven’t yet signed up for our December 8 town hall, please be sure to make it to the end of this post to access the registration form link.**

The state’s fiscal year started back in July. But, given state revenue and spending volatility due to COVID-19 and uncertainty about a federal stimulus, it just didn’t make sense to do a full budget in the spring. It certainly would have curtailed public spending at a moment when public spending is needed most.

This is a long post. You can scroll down or the links below will jump you to some key sections:

Brief overview

Again, last night, the Senate debated and passed the FY21 budget, after passing one-month and stop-gap budgets until now in order to keep the state running. This year’s budget contains hundreds of line items allocating almost $46 billion taxpayer dollars to housing, health care, libraries, environmental protection, transportation, education, and beyond. I see the budget as a reflection of how we put our values into action. The Senate made choices, through the budget process, on how we wanted to raise and allocate the Commonwealth’s collective resources.

As a whole, I am pleased with the budget. To meet growing needs, it increases total spending by around 5.5% over last year. To do that, the budget relies on increases in federal funds and also draws from the state’s rainy day fund. Given the need for public investment when families and businesses are struggling, I strongly advocated against an austerity budget that imposed pain on our most vulnerable.

Raising revenue

One of the things I pushed for mightily was a substantial fair revenue increase. You can read my remarks, here. I filed an amendment to increase the tax rate on corporate profits; close a tax loophole that allows corporations to shift revenue overseas to avoid taxation (called the GILTI tax); and increase the tax rate on unearned income, such as stocks, bonds, and dividend and interest income. I spoke on the amendment, pointing out that we have cut state taxes again and again the past decades and that more than half of the savings went to households in the top 20 percent of income. The amendment was not adopted, but Senate colleagues followed up on my remarks with their own, expressing a similar desire to take up legislation that takes a comprehensive look at the fairness of our tax code at the onset of the next legislative session.

Public health

When I wasn’t advocating to expand the size of the pie, much of my time was spent focused on local public health investments. I told my colleagues that, from my perch as Public Health Committee Chair, “COVID illuminated the painful chasm of inequities in these areas with disproportionately higher rates of infection and death in communities of color and poor communities, tied to a lack of equitable access to health care and significant transportation, housing, and environmentally-related challenges.” You can read my remarks, here.

Indeed the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that our local public health system is not adequately structured, staffed, or financed to meet large scale public health challenges. Despite the dedication of local public health staff and volunteers, our decentralized approach to delivering public health services leads to extreme variability across municipalities. This puts the entire state at risk and serves to exacerbate racial health inequities.

I’m exceedingly proud that this budget makes record investments for local public health, including funds to move towards a more collaborative system with shared services and a requirement that the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan focus on ensuring equity, directing DPH to prioritize “those communities disproportionately impacted by the 2019 novel coronavirus” through a “geographically and socioeconomically-equitable distribution” of the vaccine.

ROE

I am delighted that our budget, like the House plan, includes the “ROE Act,” proactive legislation to improve access and remove barriers to reproductive health care. With Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, I am pleased that the Legislature is not waiting to secure women’s reproductive rights. The ROE Act language included in this year’s budget protects young people by ensuring they can get support from health care providers without unnecessary delays. As you likely know, I was an early co-sponsor of the ROE Legislation, and signed up early to support the Amendment that passed.

In addition to receiving over 400 emails and calls in support of the ROE amendment, we received a number from those who are opposed. Please know we took all constituent communication into consideration.

Education

I also want to report back on education funding, which was another major focus of mine and my team. The budget makes a substantial new investment in early childhood education, with an almost 20% funding increase compared to last year. The new funds will increase subsidies for low-income families and stabilize struggling providers, including additional incentive pay for early educators and assistance to cover increased operating costs, such as PPE and cleaning. These investments reflect the long-overdue and growing recognition of the critical role early education and care plays in our economic and social well being. During our debate, a colleague quoted Senator Warren’s statement that “It’s time to recognize that childcare is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation—it’s infrastructure for families.” I fully agree.

The budget also provides a modest increase in K-12 education funding, which the House and the Senate agreed to months in advance of the budget debate so that K-12 schools could plan their budgets for the upcoming year. This was both a high note and a tough pill to swallow. Yes, it was great to provide an increase in K-12 education funding when the Commonwealth was utterly cash-strapped, but I remain concerned that the modest Student Opportunity Act phase-in schedule is not getting it done for our public schools, and I have been relentless in pushing for more COVID-related funding, formula changes around special education, and special funding for schools with low and declining enrollment and you can bet that I’m not stopping.

The Senate also provided modest increases for public higher education, including our UMass, GCC, and HCC campuses. Adequate public higher education is critical for our students. It’s critical for faculty and staff. It’s critical for our region’s economic health. It’s critical for the unparalleled promise and necessity of access to education and training — especially amid an economic crisis.

MCAS

Finally on education, I raised the issue of the MCAS exam, and offered an amendment to put off the test for this current school year. I opposed requiring a standardized test as a condition for high school graduation before the pandemic. The massive disruptions in education due to COVID have only exacerbated the difficulty of requiring teachers and students to interrupt the education process and focus on a rigid test. What’s more, the stress of COVID-19 on educators, staff, and families is profound. We must release them from the extra burden of the MCAS in 2021 and the wrenching fear that students who are experiencing both serious learning loss and uneven support will not be able to graduate. For me, this is also a matter of equity. This failed and punitive test tells us only what any good zip code analysis would: That students in schools in lower income communities, which disproportionately serve communities of color, do worse on the test. I talk about MCAS via this video.

Earmarks, co-sponsorship, what’s next

I wish I could go into great depths about the work behind the scenes to add greater protections for tenants and small landlords, on paid sick time, and to boost rural school aid, RTA funding, and more. In addition to filing 16 amendments, I co-sponsored and advocated for upwards of 50 more thanks to constituents who told me your priorities.

Finally, I also filed successful amendments to bring $250,000 home to important regional initiatives, and I filed, fought for, and won amendments to strengthen the Opioid Task Force and to boost spending for key statewide programs, including an additional $1.1 million for MassHire Career Centers, which helps unemployed and underemployed workers and youth entering the workforce.

The House passed its budget last week, and now the differences in the House and Senate budgets will be reconciled by a conference committee of members from both branches, before a final budget is sent to the Governor. The Governor has the power to veto individual spending items, and if the Governor exercises that power we the legislature can override his vetoes. The Governor hoped that the legislature would finalize a budget before the third week in November and I am hopeful that we will be able to do just that.

The People’s Town Hall

Join us for The People’s Town Hall — a virtual town hall that’s one part report back from the team and one part feedback from you.

With just weeks left until the end of the 2019-2020 session, my team and I want to report back to you about what we’ve done together with you over the last two years and what’s still left to be accomplished. And even more important: We want to hear your agenda for the 2021-2022 legislative session.

The town hall will be closed captioned in English and Spanish. Spanish-language translators will also be on hand as needed.

If you’d like to attend, please complete and submit this registration form. You will be contacted closer to the event with a Zoom link to join. Dial-in options will also be available.

When: Tuesday, December 8; 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Sign up now: senatorjocomerford.org/the-peoples-town-hall-registration/

Aaaaannnnnd The People’s Town Hall is the first of two webinars dedicated to launching us powerfully into the next session. Mark your calendars for Tuesday, February 9 from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. We’ll be just 6 weeks into 2021 and eager to tell you how we’ve put your ideas into legislative action. (More details coming in January.)

Sending love.

Jo, Jared, Brian, Elena, Sam, and Cameron

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