School safety, road $$$ featured in new Baker spending bill

Boston Statehouse

With surplus tax revenue on hand, Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday morning rolled out a $583 million supplemental spending plan to close the books on fiscal year 2018, highlighted by a $150 million package of funding for school safety and educational initiatives.

Massachusetts collected an estimated $1.2 billion more in tax revenue that it had expected. About $1 billion in surplus funds are being used spent to address underfunded accounts or socked away in the state rainy day fund, leaving the administration with up to $200 million in funds that have not been earmarked for any purpose and allowing the governor to steer some of that money towards some of his priorities.

The $150 million bundle of one-time investments includes $70 million to improve training for students, staff and first responders to address and report threats in schools. It also includes $40 million in additional aid to school districts to hire school counselors, social workers and mental health workers, and $20 million in matching grants for security and communication upgrades in K-12 schools and at public colleges and universities.

The governor said the investments came after months of discussions between local school superintendents and various cabinet secretaries.

“This is something that we have been discussing with our colleagues at the local level for the past several months, especially after Parkland,” Baker said Friday. “Our view on this was this was a good way for us to put resources on the table, make them available and then give people at the local level the ability to basically apply for them and demonstrate where they thought the best opportunity for them to enhance safety in their schools would be.

“The administration is also proposing $4 million for school resource officer training, $2.5 million to create a tipline that could provide public safety and school personnel with timely information on potential risks, $2 million for a statewide “say something” campaign and $500,000 to create a school safety website.

The bill seeks to help low-income students at community colleges pay for their education, with a $15 million appropriation to cover the unmet financial needs of certain students.

“All community college students who qualify for Pell grants with unmet financial needs will have their remaining tuition and fees fully covered,” Baker said. He added, “Data shows that low-income, first-generation college students are disproportionately represented at community colleges and, due in many cases to financial pressure, the least likely to earn degrees or certificates in a timely fashion.”

Baker plans to file his fiscal 2018 close-out budget just more than two weeks before the Legislature is scheduled to end its formal sessions for the year and there is already a backlog of legislation lawmakers are hoping to finish before July 31.

“While we know the formal session ends shortly, we hope the Legislature will give this package and the other items we’re about to discuss serious consideration. We believe the resources are there and we believe this package, based on the months of discussion that have taken place between folks on our team and folks in local government, can make a positive difference in enhancing and improving school safety,” Baker said.

Baker also proposes, in an outside policy section, requiring public and private colleges and universities to report any known financial liabilities or risks to their long-term viability to the Department of Higher Education. That proposal comes on the heels of the closure of Mount Ida College in Newton and its controversial sale to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a transaction was executed without the department’s involvement.

Aside from the money for education and school safety, Baker’s close-out supplemental budget also includes $50 million for cities and towns to make repairs or conduct maintenance on their local roads.
“Every city and town across the commonwealth will see an additional distribution for construction, maintenance or improvement of their local roads and bridges,” Michael Heffernan, the secretary for administration and finance, said.

The bill includes $30 million in financial assistance to fund clean drinking water and wastewater projects, a $10 million transfer to the Community Preservation Trust Fund, a $10 million transfer to the Life Sciences Investment Fund, $8 million for multi-year municipal police training and $5 million in transitional housing assistance for people who evacuated to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico during last year’s hurricane.

Friday’s announcement was made possible by better-than-expected tax revenue collections in fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30.

The administration has estimated that collections will surpass estimates by $1.2 billion once final figures are tallied. Baker said Friday that he expects the bill he filed will exhaust any surplus funds.
“The revenue news was very good in fiscal ’18 and we’re certainly pleased to be in a position to make these investments,” Heffernan said.

Baker cautioned Friday that the excess revenue appeared to come from historically volatile sources and had a lot to do with the federal tax reform law signed by President Donald Trump. While Trump has predicted the tax law will provide a multi-year economic stimulus, Baker warned that the bump in revenue may not carry over into the current budget year.

“Having been on the wrong end of the fiscal year the last couple of years, I tend not to get too elated about this because I do think some of this is cyclical,” he said. He added, “A big part of that bounce is related to stuff people wouldn’t consider to be recurring.”

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