Western Mass. State Senator Mark digs into Healey’s budget — seeking investment in regional transit, rural school aid, public buildings
Last week, Democratic Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey filed her first state budget. The $55.5 billion plan is accompanied by a $742 million tax relief package that includes sweeping cuts. It’s significantly larger than the $700 million tax proposal promoted by Healey’s Republican predecessor Charlie Baker last year, which the Democrat-dominated legislature did not pass. For the next few months, the budget is now in the hands of legislators like Democratic State Senator Paul Mark of the Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire District, with the goal of delivering a final budget this summer. He says the budget needs more support for regional transportation, councils on aging, and rural school aid. Mark spoke with WAMC.
MARK: I think it's a really great starting point. I think they put a lot of work into this, and when a governor is new, they get an extra couple of weeks, and they took the extra weeks and I think that was the right move. And I think they've done a lot of research and a lot of listening and a lot of finding out what people really need around the state. And so, all in all, I think the governor did a really good job with this first proposal, and so now we take the next couple of months to run through it and see what people in our districts are thinking. And the House gets that first shot. And so for me, it's going to be a different experience, because normally, I would dive right in and expect to be voting on this in early to late April, and for the first time in the Senate, it’s going to be an experience of seeing what the House does, and while I'm meeting with constituents and hearing what they think of the governor's proposal, also hearing what my representatives that I overlap with our thinking and where they're going, and then trying to figure it all out in May on the Senate side. So, it's going to be a different experience for me.
WAMC: I want to tackle education on two fronts. Let's start with K-12 education. Healey has put forward the largest amount of funding for K-12 education in Massachusetts to date into this budget. Talk to me about that- What's your takeaway from that segment of the education plan?
Yeah, I like that she's following through on the commitment of the Student Opportunity Act, that we're trying to get to that full funding over the next couple of years. And I know, as a member of the House, it was always important to me, and as a member of the Senate, it continues to be important. Something I liked that she did for K-12 education, I think it's the first time at least in in modern history that a governor has proposed the rural school aid as a governor's proposal. So, in her budget, there is $7.5 million for this rural school aid, and what that is, when we look at the formula of Chapter 70, even with the additional funding from the Student Opportunity Act, we still find that there's just not a formula that's going to work in some of the smallest towns I represent. I was in the town of Chester yesterday, and hearing a lot from students at the Gateway Regional School District about how the unique problems that they're facing often leads to a feeling that maybe Boston isn't paying attention. And so, to have the governor throw that rural school line item into her budget as a starting point, that we're going to start at $7.5 million, and thinking back to five years ago, this didn't exist at all in the modern budget. And my predecessor, Senator [Adam] Hinds, was the person that really put a lot of work into reviving that. And so, I know a report that came out suggests that the real need is probably somewhere in the $50 million to $60 million range, but to go from zero up to $7.5 million I think it's a really great step. And now, in the House and Senate, I know we're going to be working hard in our local delegation to try to get that to an even bigger number.
Within the Massachusetts legislature, there's debate about how to provide more funding for higher education in the state. Healey has chosen to approach this with a $20 million dollar plan to make community college free for folks 25 and up. You've heard a lot of different opinions on this, both in the House and the Senate. What are your thoughts on that, and how do you think it'll be received in the in the upper chamber?
So, I really liked the governor's plan, regardless of where we end up, which I hope we will end up somewhere even more robust than what she's proposing. But I love the intention. I love the intention of trying to make sure that people that maybe did some education and didn't have the chance to finish get that chance to go back, get the chance to either finish an education or get the advanced job training that they need to find employment and good employment, sustainable employment, employment that is going to result in life changing benefits, that kind of thing. And so, anyone that knows my background knows that this is something that is so important to me, that when my father got laid off, his warehouse closed, there's a man in his mid-40s who has worked at a warehouse for 20 years. And so having the skills needed to then find a different job in an employment landscape that had changed over 20 years was extremely difficult and led to a lot of hard times that our family went through. And so, a program like this, I think, is extremely important and something that is really worth supporting, to making sure that our workforce stays competitive, our workforce stays on top of what the changes are. And so, I know the Senate president has gone even further already in her inaugural day speech. She talked about making community college free outright. And so, I imagine where we're going to land is somewhere in between that, but it's just, it's really good in terms of work I've been doing over the past 12 years to hear this conversation happening, that affordability is important, affordability is a priority, and getting people the skills they need to be successful in life, opening those doors to opportunity is something we're going to be working hard on this budget. I love that.
Healey has talked a lot about approaching housing aggressively during her tenure. Where are you seeing that in this budget? Do you think that the governor is moving swiftly enough on housing? Certainly, in your district, it's been an issue of great concern for some time.
Yeah, I like that she's proposing the Secretary of Housing as like a separate entity from where it traditionally has been placed in a bigger agency. And so, trying to come up with a person who is in cabinet-level meetings, reporting directly to the governor, and is going to have a focus on housing I think is really important, because then that cabinet position becomes kind of the interactive branch between the governor and the House and the Senate. And so, can really be focused and really have an in-depth, hopefully, understanding and knowledge of what would work and what would work all over the state. And we'll be able to go all over the state to make sure that they're figuring out what unique needs in Berkshire County can still be successful in a plan that is budgeted through the legislature and through the governor. I liked that the governor proposed this idea of using vacant state property, and I'm talking about buildings, vacant state buildings and converting them into housing. So, you have property that is already somewhere and isn't being fully utilized right now. I can think of a couple of properties in Pittsfield. There's a there's a building across the street from Pittsfield High School that I think would potentially qualify, and using that kind of a property to invest in a community and to try to make housing options available in a way that hopefully be affordable and realistic for more people I think is really important and really going to be helpful as we move forward. And then, yeah, trying to find out, there was a supplemental budget that the House worked on last week, and I believe the Senate is going to work on this week, where she, the governor, had proposed funding for some more immediate needs. And I know housing is one of those areas. So, both housing, making sure that people that might start facing problems keeping in their house right now, preventing people from losing housing is extremely important. And then making sure that programs that are going to be available to help people find housing in the future is something that we all want to be supportive of. And I'm really glad to, again, hear this was an early part of the governor's agenda.
I'm fascinated to hear your thoughts on more Healey's massive tax relief plan. It's worth nearly $750 million. I was interested- You know, you're a union guy and Raise Up Massachusetts, the coalition of labor, faith, and community organizations that back to the Fair Share Amendment to its successful passage last year has been very critical of this tax cut plan. I'm going to read this quote here: “However, the governor's accompanying proposal to cut state taxes by a billion dollars each year, including nearly $400 million in tax cuts targeted at the ultra-rich would ultimately undermine the Fair Share Amendment’s goals of a fairer tax system and greater investment in critical public goods.” What are your thoughts on that? They’re framing this tax relief package as including, again, quoting here, “enormous tax breaks for wealthy stock traders and multimillion dollar estates.” What are your thoughts on this?
Yeah, I think if there's going to be tax cuts and tax rebates and tax credits that you want to make sure that if it's happening, it's going to be focused on the people that need the tax benefits the most. So, people with lower income, people that are maybe facing unexpected expenses that aren't in our normal day-to-day lives. And so, an example of that would be the estate tax. So last session, we passed, I think, a doubling of the estate tax from $1 million to $2 million. And it was kind of a reflection that things have changed, prices have gone up. Housing, especially in the eastern part of the state, the value of housing has significantly increased over the last 20, 30 years. And so, when you're having, maybe, someone who's getting on in years and they're thinking about selling and they've owned a house their whole life, they've been paying in 30, 40 years, and they're going to receive a payment that seems like a lot of money, but in reality, because of the real estate market, isn't, you don't want to penalize them. And so, making that estate tax higher when a parent unexpectedly dies and you're dealing with an estate package that really isn't excessive. It's funny to say, because to me a million dollars in property still sounds like a lot of money. But I recognize in other parts of the state that it's not, and so, trying to make sure that people aren't being overly taxed and double taxed for things that they just paid into for their whole lives I think is a good starting point. I think I’d prefer to see more some earned income tax credits. Those are things we worked on last session that we were able to pass and then got kind of derailed by that 62F bill that resulted in the 13% tax refund to everybody in the state. But targeting tax credits to people that are low income, to people that are working, to people that are trying to send kids to childcare, to people that are trying to get an education. I think when we think about the millionaire's tax, the idea there is to get a more progressive tax structure that isn't penalizing people for being successful. Instead, it is trying to help people and make sure that the tax code is as fair as possible and that those that earn the least are getting the least burden, that they're not paying in. When you have the flat tax at 5% just flat out of the gate, then it ends up that people that are lower income are actually end up paying way more of their income into taxes. And so, a reflection of increasing the estate tax exemption and maybe some earned income tax credits, I think would be a pretty good model on how we make a progressive tax structure that stays true to the ideals of the millionaire's tax, that we want to make sure that we're investing in education, we're investing in transportation, and that the people that need it most are getting any breaks that are going to happen.
When you look over the $55.5 billion budget that the governor has put forward, where did she go wrong? What are areas that you think Governor Maura Healey could have done better with her fiscal plan for Massachusetts?
From constituents, what I'm already starting to hear is we'd like to see a little more investment in maybe regional school transportation, we'd like to see a little more investment in the RTAs, the regional transit authorities, we'd like to see more investment in councils on aging, we'd like to see more investment- Again, $7.5 million is a great starting point for rural school aid. But you know, if we're talking about a $50 million to $60 million need, we'd like to see a significant more investment in that item. I liked seeing that there was $8 million designated in the governor's budget for repairs at the Pittsfield rail station. But I'd like to see also maybe more language and commitment to starting the project in the Pittsfield area and working east from the west. In Chester, I happened to be in Chester doing an event yesterday, there's a lot of interest in, from an economic development standpoint, making a stop at the old rail station, the historic rail station in Chester. So, I'd like to see maybe a commitment to that and making sure that we're expanding as much economic opportunity and as much investment into rural areas and small-town areas as possible. I think all in all, it was a really good starting point, and when we look at any governor's budget, and I think this governor is getting a little more deference because she's brand new, and she obviously won with a mandate in the most recent governor's election. But it's a starting point. It's a suggestion. It's her saying, these are things I think are important from my lens as a statewide official, and it's things that my administration, my new secretaries, my new commissioners, that they think is important. And now it's the legislature's job to spend the next couple of months going over this, listening to people and targeting the funding. And so, with the opportunity for earmarks, that's a place where we want to make sure that we're getting local projects funded as much as possible. I'd love to see more investment in some of the public buildings needs that is happening in the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts, whether it's a public safety complex, whether it's a library, whether it’s a town hall, there is a significant need for funding for our towns and our cities in terms of the buildings, the capital assets that they have in their communities. And I think that's somewhere we need to work on, sure.
Now, Healey's tax plan is even larger than the one that former Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, filed last year- Which was $700 million, Healey’s is $742 million. Talk to me about the contrast that you're seeing between the fiscal planning that we're seeing with this new administration, a return for the Democratic Party to the corner office after eight years of Baker. What are the contrasts and similarities that you're seeing between the two administrations so far?
I think that both the Baker administration and the new Healey administration do have an eye on the future. And when I talk about an eye on the future, I think we're talking about, what are the projections for revenue? So, because money has come in strong, whether it's been funding from Washington or just tax receipts locally because the economy has been moving along at the pace it’s been moving along, how long is that going to last? When is it going to be, when is it going to change? And then when do we need to be cautious? So, in projecting growth, where are we projecting cautious growth that we're not going to end up in a hole, that we're not going to make commitments that we can't fall back on, and we can't keep? And at the same time, as things change, as economies change, as education services change, as society changes, are we investing in what's going to keep us successful next? And so when we talk about Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a pretty successful state, in spite of the fact that our weather isn't always great, we're kind of an expensive place for cost of living. And, you know, there's shortcomings in any area, of course, but we always are poised to be ready to meet the challenge of the future. And that's something that I think both Governor Baker, and so far, Governor Healey have been good at. Where I'm seeing a potential difference is, I think the governor, being new, is trying to deliver on campaign pledges. And I think that's important that as an elected official, if you ran for office and you made pledges that you are indeed following up on them. It's just making sure that those pledges are going to be things that are successful for the state moving into the future. So, I know right now, one of the things people aren't happy with that I've been hearing, at least people in my district and people that are in the circles I travel in, is that idea of the capital gains tax cut. Like, trying to see- That was that was clearly something she talked, the governor talked about in the campaign, and trying to see like, what is actually appropriate, who will that actually benefit? In the quote you mentioned from the unions, like, you know, we don't we don't want to give tax breaks to millionaires after putting in place a millionaire's tax. And so, finding that balance, I think she's going to do it. I think she's off to a great start. I think she's spending a lot of time going around the stage. She's been in the Berkshires a couple of times already. She's in Worcester today. She's not just sitting in an office in Boston. And there's a honeymoon period. At some point it’s going to end, and so hopefully the collaborative relationship that we had with the Baker administration and the legislature is going to both continue and probably get even better and even more productive for the people of this commonwealth.