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As Massachusetts budget process continues, Rep. Farley-Bouvier breaks down $56 billion House proposal

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, speaking at an October 2021 campaign event for fellow State Rep. Paul Mark.
Josh Landes
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, speaking at an October 2021 campaign event for fellow State Rep. Paul Mark.

The Massachusetts House released its proposal for the fiscal year 2024 budget this week. Democratic Governor Maura Healey released her first budget proposal in March. Both hover around $56 billion and both have been condemned by organized labor groups and Fair Share Amendment supporters for offering tax cuts to the wealthy that they describe as exorbitant. The budget process now moves to the Senate before a final compromise plan is approved before the new fiscal year starts July 1st. WAMC spoke with Democratic State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of the 2nd Berkshire District to hear her thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the budget proposal she helped to draft.

FARLEY-BOUVIER: One of the biggest highlights is our continued significant investments in early education. We have put $100 million into the rate reserve, the salary rate reserve, and that is going to make a big impact on being able to pay our early educators, which is the key right now. We need to pay our early educators as the professionals that they are. We also have increased the [Commonwealth Cares for Children] grants, which is something that came about during the pandemic shutdowns to support our early education centers.

WAMC: When we spoke about Governor Maura Healey’s budget, you talked about concerns about the RAFT program, the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program. Was that addressed in the House budget?

Yeah, so, it's significant. So, not only did we increase that line item over last year by $17 million, but we've made a change from the governor's budget. Instead of every 24 months being eligible for $10,000 worth of benefits, every 12 months an individual would be eligible for up to $7,000 in rental assistance. That's just really acknowledging the high cost of housing and how we're going to be able to help individuals and families pay for that. In addition, we are making the eviction protections permanent, so if somebody is in the process of getting this rental assistance that hasn't come through yet, evictions aren't going to happen. And Josh, it's really important for everybody to remember that only a court can evict you. Getting a notice from your landlord that says a notice to quit, that is not an eviction. People should remember that.

When I asked you about earmarks for the Pittsfield community that you might try to get into the House budget draft back in March, you talked about SNAP benefits. Of course, the federal government has ended the pandemic era SNAP benefits. Talk to me about that- Did you manage to get anything in there about food assistance for folks who are facing food insecurity in the Berkshires?

So, we have. In the House Ways and Means budget, there is increase in [the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program] which funds the Western Mass Food Bank along with three other regional food banks in Massachusetts. So, that is an increase. A really important policy change and investment is that universal school meals – [which] means that everybody, every child in Massachusetts, is eligible for free school meals – is being made permanent. And that, of course, is being led by the House. So, that is a $1,200 benefit per child per year to families. So, not only are we addressing that food insecurity, but it's real dollars in in the pockets of working families.

From your perspective, what's wrong with the House budget? what are things better that you'd like to see changed before it gets finally approved later this year?

Well, I'm not going to say wrong. But I am going to say that we are going to be working to be fighting for Pittsfield, for the Berkshires, and for Western Mass, in that the governor's budget, which we refer to as House 1, had a significant investment in Western Mass rail as part of the ongoing complicated process of building out Western Mass rail, and there was in her budget $12.5 million to build a station track in Pittsfield and do a study on the Palmer station. And that is a clear indication by the administration that [Healey] cares deeply of doing real work on this project. It is not included in House Ways and Means, but the Western Mass delegation, all of us are coming together to say this is an important project, and we are going to make the investments in Western Mass rail, even knowing it's a fraction of a percent of what is being invested in with the MBTA.

One reaction to the House budget from some of the groups who organized behind the Fair Share Amendment last year is a sense of frustration over the House budget maintaining the tax cuts for the wealthy that you among other legislators criticized in Governor Healey's budget. Why did that make its way into this House draft of the budget? And then what are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, so just to clarify, there's two different pieces of legislation. One Is the revenue package, the revenue reform package, and the other is the budget, right? So, just, we voted on the revenue reform, actually, in the house yesterday. So, when it came to revenue reform, the idea was to get the balance right. How do we ensure that the, for example, the estate tax is at the right level? We had an estate tax at $1 million. That is a complete outlier from the rest of the country. The governor proposed moving it to $3 million, the House came in at $2 million. And so, for the House to be to the left of a progressive governor really is saying something on that. The other issue is around, on the other side of that ledger, is the huge investments that we've made in families. So, each family, this is going to be rolled out over three years, but for every child, you can get a $600 per year credit, tax credit. That is that is real money in people's pockets. And then we've increased the Earned Income Tax Credit to match the federal level at 40% of the federal level. That is one of the highest in the country. We've been working on that over the last several years. Back six, eight years ago, it was at 15%, and we've moved to 40%. So, there's a lot of things in there. Oh, and importantly, the senior tax credit has been doubled. So, there's a lot in there for working people and for the poor, and we made some movement on updating the estate tax.

So, I just want to read back a quote that you gave to me last month, just to sort of see how it sits with you after this budget has been released from the House: “What we don't want to do is after all the work of getting the Fair Share Amendment through, then to undo that work. And I'm concerned that putting together all the provisions of her tax package” – that's Governor Maura Healey – “is doing just that.” Did you feel like that that statement holds up with this draft of the House budget?

Yes, because we've moved that $3 million estate tax to $2 million. We fought for that, and we feel comfortable with that. That was something that we actually voted on last year in the House, and we reflected it. And we also were able to bring protections to working families. And when you look at the ledger of, like, what's coming in at Fair Share and what's going out in these new proposals, some of it is going to people who are more well-to-do but more of it is going to working families and to seniors. Another thing we've done in the House is to put the guardrails around Fair Share. So, Fair Share is going to be segregated out of the budget so we can really track how it's being spent between education and transportation. And a stabilization fund is going to be created through that process, because there's always bad years. And in addition to that, if you might recall, Josh, that last year, a provision that, you know, many, many people had forgotten about because it was 35 years old and hadn't been used, something called 62F. And we made a really important change to 62F, where, if there's going to be money given back to taxpayers, literally every taxpayer in the commonwealth is going to get the same amount. And that is a big change from last year and something that we're very, very proud of.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.