Mayors take issue with education funding in Gov. Charlie Baker’s $39.6 billion budget



Last modified: Thursday, January 28, 2016

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday filed what he called a fiscally responsible $39.6 billion state budget that calls for no increases in state taxes or fees and shrinks a structural deficit between the growth in annual spending and revenues.

While the budget modestly increases local aid, the mayors of Easthampton and Northampton say the proposal misses the mark when it comes to desperately needed education funding overhauls.

“We believe that getting state spending under control to the point where spending grows at a rate that is similar to the economy is essential to the state’s economic health going forward,” Baker said shortly after submitting to the Legislature the spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The budget calls for an overall 3.5 percent increase in spending, but many state agencies will receive little or no additional money over current levels. Tax revenues are projected to rise 4.3 percent in the next fiscal year.

Administration officials said the deficit currently stands at $635 million, down from $1.8 billion when Baker took office last January.

Governors and lawmakers have typically relied on an array of one-time revenues and other temporary fixes to close annual shortfalls, a tactic Baker said he was determined to gradually move away from. The fiscal 2017 budget calls for $253 million in one-time solutions, down from $1.2 billion in fiscal 2015.

To erase the remaining gap, Baker is proposing several steps including reforms intended to save nearly $300 million in Medicaid costs without reducing benefits. Overall Medicaid spending would still rise about 5 percent.

Baker previously announced a $42 million increase in unrestricted local aid to cities and towns, and a $72 million hike in direct assistance to public schools.

Democratic Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst said Wednesday the state is facing a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

Rosenberg said Baker’s budget spends all the tax dollars available but still leaves the governor’s education goals unfulfilled, in part because tax cuts in past years have siphoned up to $4 billion in revenue.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party said Baker’s “bare-bones budget reflects his bare-bones vision,” for the state.

The budget goes first to the House and later to the Senate for review.

Outdated formula

Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz said he acknowledges Baker’s commitment to tying increases in unrestricted funding to match increases in state revenue. The city is set to receive an additional $175,000.

“That’s definitely positive,” he said. “But looking at some of the other accounts that are really important to us, the news isn’t quite as positive.”

Northampton is one of about 150 communities that receive the minimum amount of school funding, known as Chapter 70, from the state. It’s set to see a 0.7 percent increase in those funds compared to last year, Narkewicz said, which is actually less than last year’s increase.

Narkewicz said the outdated formula, which was introduced in the early 1990s, needs to be updated to reflect modern education costs. A state review last fall of the funding mechanism recommended that it be revamped.

“The formula doesn’t really reflect the true costs of educating children,” Narkewicz said. “It doesn’t reflect the incredible increases of health insurance, for example. It also doesn’t reflect a lot of the things around special education and English language learning.”

The budget also calls for a $20.5 million increase in reimbursements the state makes to school districts for charter school tuition.

But Easthampton Mayor Karen L. Cadieux said that funding increase does not help much because it fails to fully address the strain placed on cities and towns by charter school tuition.

“Charter is just at the point where we believe it’s crippling our public education,” Cadieux said. The amount of local aid and education funding is “very close to the same numbers that I received last year.”

Charter school tuition is funded out of the budgets of cities and towns and a portion of that money is reimbursed by the state. Cadieux noted that Massachusetts is “one of the only states” to fund charter schools in that manner.

In addition, the state in recent years has not funded its full share of the cost.

Under the state formula for charter school reimbursement, Northampton was supposed to receive about $575,000 last year. But it only got $394,000, Narkewicz said.

Under Baker’s proposed budget, Northampton would see a slight decrease in charter reimbursement, Narkewicz said.

Cadieux said the method of funding needs to be completely overhauled, so the state pays directly for the education of charter students rather than tuition being paid from city budgets.

The budget also calls for depositing at least $206 million into the state’s reserve, or “rainy day” fund, replenishing some of the millions that have been diverted to the general fund in recent years, much to the alarm of credit rating agencies.

“Saving money for a rainy day, especially in good times, is a must,” said Baker.

Some areas of state government would see spending increases in the administration’s budget.

The state Department of Children and Families, for example, would receive additional funds to hire 281 new social workers and reduce staggering caseload levels. The spending plan also sets aside $140 million to address the state’s opioid addiction crisis, much of it to support treatment and recovery services.

Still, the plan is likely to be a disappointment to those advocating for greater state investment in areas such as education and transportation.

Noah Berger, president of the independent Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said it was largely a “status quo” budget despite some positive elements.

“There are no major new efforts to expand access to early education, to make higher education more affordable, or to make new investments in fixing our transportation infrastructure,” Berger said in a statement.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.


 

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