Plenty of flags, lots of spending : Governor Baker presents his $ 42.7 billion FY 2020 budget

Last week Governor Baker presented his administration’s $ 42.7 Billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In it I find several new directions worth attending to. Critics have already complained that these new directions don’t do enough, but they’re there, and if enacted by the legislature, will put down an institutional pathway almost certain to take hold of the future for Baker’s new directions.

I will look at some of these initiatives next, but first you should read the Governor’s entire budget letter :

Most significant of the new directions, I think, is that the Baker budget accepts the recommendations of the Foundation Budget review commission — that state aid to our public schools falls about $ 2 billion short of actual expenditures as mandated by the 1993 state Supreme Court decision guaranteeing students a Constitutional right to state-funded education. The reimbursement formula hasn’t been updated since then, and the review commission was clear that it needed to be. I’m not an expert in these matters and cannot opine whether the review commission’s findings accurately account these costs, but that’s no longer up for debate. The Baker budget funds them all. Indeed, the Baker budget provides for funding, beginning in 2021, some school costs other than those cited by the review commission.

Complaint arises because the state Senate and House differed on how to implement the Foundation funds change. The Senate wanted them funded all at once; the House voted for a five-year phase-in. Baker’s budget adopts the House’s position.

Baker’s 2020 budget also addresses some of the costs of higher education. Some progressives want state college tuition to be free, and while the baker budget doesn’t travel the whole route, it begins to take it :

The House 1 proposal includes a new $100 million trust fund that will enable students entering Massachusetts public and private colleges and universities next year to significantly reduce college costs and have greater opportunities for paid internships and cooperative education. Seeded with revenue from the Administration’s sales tax modernization proposal described in more detail below, the trust fund would set aside $25 million for Commonwealth Commitment, the college affordability program for students transferring from a community college to a public college or university. The trust fund would commit another $25 million to scholarships for students who are participating in proven college success programs at both public and private four-year colleges; $25 million for matching grants to provide work experiences to students attending two and four-year public colleges and universities; and $15 million to expand Early College programs. The trust fund would also set aside $10 million to pilot financial aid strategies that have proven successful in other states to help students complete their degrees.

Perhaps most interesting of Baker’s new directions is his proposal to raise the state’s real estate deed transfer excise tax to help fund communities’ responses to climate change :
…the Administration today is also filing legislation to launch a major new climate change adaptation initiative, funded through a modest increase in the deeds excise paid on real estate transactions. This investment will amount to $75 million in FY20, and $137 million on an annualized basis to support the Commonwealth’s communities in upgrading their infrastructure and planning for the impacts of climate change.  Response to this proposal has not been as welcoming as I had expected; after all, Boston and most other municipalities voted in favor of a one percent real estate tax surcharge for Community Preservation purposes, most of which involve green space and climate response. Many objectors see the Baker proposal as a tax on the middle class, and I suppose it is one. We’ll have to see how the legislature responds to the item, yet I give the Baker proposal an “A” for recognizing that climate change is a real problem for a state with a long, well populated coastline, and that combating its effects is going to cost tons of money. Might as well face the challenge now.

Speaking of infrastructure, one item in the Baker budget is this :
“… an increase of $5.5 million over the Department of Public Utilities’ FY19 budget to support and enhance the pipeline safety division’s critical testing, investigations, and oversight responsibilities to ensure that natural gas distribution companies are in compliance with safety regulations. ” Why is this there ? It’s because it was noted, after the gas explosions last September in South Lawrence and the Andovers, that the state had only two gas inspectors where ten are needed. This budget item accounts for that ten.

Lastly, I’ll mention Baker’s proposal to revise MassHealth eligibility to include moire low-income seniors as well as a commitment to obtaining lower drug prices for those who can’t afford high cost medicines that are especially needed :
“…expanding benefits and eligibility for the Medicare Savings Program to provide assistance to approximately 40,000 low-income seniors in managing their prescription drug costs, delivering potential savings of thousands of dollars per year. A state investment of $7 million annually ($4 million in FY20) will leverage more than $100 million in Medicare prescription drug subsidies accruing directly to older consumers.” “Progressives” are making a big issue — correctly, in my opinion — of the high cost of drugs, especially drugs needed by people with potentially mortal diseases and malfunctions. The Baker budget incorporates the principle and a bit of the substance of the progressive drug price agenda.

There’s much more for me to report from the baker 2020 budget, and i will do so in my next column. Yet none outdo the proposals discussed here for change of direction. Accepting the Foundation Budget review commission’s recommendations in particular puts Baker on the public school path rather than the charter school option. Defeat of the charter school expansion initiative in 2016 offered him no realistic choice, but not every Governor is as reality-minded as Baker, who is n’t one to chase chimeras and lost causes.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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