In spite of his opposition to a three-year suspension of the law governing privatization of state services in regards to the MBTA, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), said the $38.1 billion fiscal 2016 budget unveiled the night of July 7 and approved the next afternoon by votes of 153-1 in the House and 31-5 in the Senate is “a very strong budget.”
“We had some really solid increases in Chapter 70 education and special education, circuit breaker, housing, including more housing vouchers for low-income and homeless families, which is a priority of mine,” he said. “We also increased the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation and Recreation for parks, so we had some good increases there.”
In terms of policy changes, Eldridge said his biggest priority was the expansion of the state earned income tax credit from 15 percent of the federal credit to 23 percent.
“I filed legislation this year to increase it twice that amount, but to get 23 percent is a good start. That could mean a lot of families in Massachusetts could get an extra $1,000 when they file their taxes. That could be used for different needs they have for their children or one another,” he said. “The only other one I’d mention is the Council on Aging. We increased the funding to $9. It was $8 per senior last year, so depending on the number of seniors you have in town, you get that amount of money for COA for senior centers. And we also increased funding for the Cultural Council, including the Acton-Boxborough Cultural Council, to provide more grants to artists and musicians in town.”
State Rep. Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg), whose district includes Boxborough and part of Acton, said, “I think the overarching goal in the budget was to listen to the local people and what they needed.”
“I think this budget did a lot in a fairly restrained way,” she said. “The overall increase is only 3.5 percent, but our actual projected tax revenue growth is 4.8 percent. I think it’s really important to realize we have targeted the needs of community while staying with our means.”
Benson said education is a big-ticket item for the district and something she has been interested in.
“Specifically for the district, regional school district was increased, the regional bonus aid was implemented and increased,” she said. “We’ve been working to get it into the budget and so we were able to fully fund it. It is important for the newly formed (Acton-Boxborough) regional school district because there are one-time or early expenses and so this is a way for them to make that transition and something the state has been interested in supporting in the past.”
In terms of overall municipal aid, both Acton and Boxborough came out ahead compared to fiscal 2015, as Acton cleared approximately $1.27 million after expenses compared to $1.23 million in fiscal 2015, and Boxborough’s net aid was $257,694 compared to $243,899 in fiscal 2015.
Although Chapter 70 aid for the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District increased from approximately $14.25 million to $14.93 million, decreases in regional transport aid and charter school reimbursement led to overall school aid falling $136,709 to slightly less than $15.7 million.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who made generally favorable comments about the budget the morning of July 8, had 10 days to sift through its details before signing it and announcing vetoes and amendments.
MBTA, Pacheco bill major issue
Baker said the budget, which slows the rate of growth in state spending, didn’t include any new taxes or fees and featured reforms that he believes will improve MBTA performance.
One of the MBTA reforms, the three-year suspension of the law governing privatization of state services, came in for harsh criticism from several senators, including the sponsor of that 1993 law, Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton).
In a 43-minute speech, Pacheco painted a picture of profit-seeking companies swooping in to grab MBTA contracts and forcing layoffs of members of an MBTA workforce that he said had grown more diverse over the years.
Supporters of the law’s suspension say it will help the MBTA, whose shortcomings were exposed during this winter’s heavy snowfall, to improve operations and address maintenance and repair backlogs.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said that because of the MBTA’s poor performance, “we felt it necessary that we had to give the governor some real strong tools that he can use to turn things around,” including the Pacheco law suspension and a new fiscal control board.
State Rep. Cory Atkins (D-Concord) whose district includes part of Acton, said of the MBTA, “This is the most striking revelation of this budget.”
“The transportation system collapsed this winter, and the public demands that it get fixed,” she said. “This winter there was a transportation collapse, giving the governor the upper hand which was fueled by the political will for dramatic change.”
The goal, Atkins said, is to make sure the state has a transportation system that works.
“The MBTA system has a lot of abuse that needs to be cleaned up,” she said. “The MBTA has a closet full of skeletons, and privatization gives management much more flexibility.”
Eldridge was against the suspension of the Pacheco Law.
“In my experience, the complaints I’ve received have been from some of the private companies that already run the MBTA, such as Keolis. I just think if you privatize the MBTA, there’s less accountability and it’s harder to change bad practices,” he said. “I certainly recognize the need for reforms in the MBTA, (and) I happen to believe there also needs to be greater investment in the MBTA to really improve services for riders.”
However, Benson said she does not believe the Pacheco law suspension is privatization.
“Essentially the government is asking for flexibility to fund,” she said. “It’s only for three years and what we’re really trying to say is, ‘This is what you requested. We’ll give you the tools to help you solve it and see what happens.’ It’s on new contracts. It’s really targeted and for a short period of time. This is what people recommended. We’re giving it three years to see if it will actually make a difference.”
DeLeo said the House planned to address other issues affecting the T in legislation that’s before the House Ways and Means Committee. DeLeo emphasized the importance of making the T run efficiently, and said Baker “has made it clear that he does not foresee any layoffs whatsoever as a result, that’s not his intent.”
Senate budget chief Karen Spilka said the three-year suspension measure was a “bitter pill to swallow” in secret budget negotiations with a three-member House panel. The House had favored a five-year suspension of the law at the MBTA. The law was left untouched in the Senate budget that passed in May, and Pacheco during his speech said 32 senators has committed themselves to preserving the law.
Five senators voted against acceptance of the conference committee report, and others who voted for it said the suspension of the Pacheco law made it a difficult decision.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said he was disappointed by the inclusion of the Pacheco suspension in the bill and both he and Spilka said the focus on MBTA reforms should be on the management side.
“I’ll speak for myself. I’m very disappointed,” Rosenberg said. He also said he expected about a half-dozen votes against the conference report and the statutory vetting process before privatization of government service is something senators “feel very passionately about.”
Sens. Ken Donnelly (D-Arlington), Eldridge, Tom McGee (D-Lynn), Dan Wolf (D-Harwich) and Pacheco voted against acceptance of the budget report, though the vote to send the bill to the governor’s desk was unanimous.
Fresh from the final step before his first budget as Senate president was delivered to the governor, Rosenberg was generally pleased with the outcome and particularly upbeat about giving the University of Massachusetts the ability to retain tuition payments, which currently go to the state’s general fund.
“It’s been about 20 years in the making. It’s time we caught up with the rest of the country. Every public university system in America has tuition retention and has for a very long time,” Rosenberg said.
— Molly Loughman and Bill Fonda contributed to this story.
Check out the story here.