Berkshire lawmakers highlight pros, cons of belated $56 billion Massachusetts budget
A month after it was due, Massachusetts legislators have finally agreed on a budget for fiscal year 2024. Berkshire County lawmakers in the House and Senate say the roughly $56 billion plan has pros and cons.
After weeks of conference committee meetings and debate, the legislature sent a compromise budget to the desk of Democratic Governor Maura Healey. It’s the first of her tenure, and is $3.5 billion or almost 7% higher than last year’s budget.
The entirely Democratic Berkshire County legislative delegation says there’s a lot to celebrate in the first budget passed by a government entirely in the party’s control in almost a decade.
“What I was most pleased with was all the local earmarks that me and the representatives in the area had put in, seemed to have made it through, which is really important, because we're talking about funding that's getting directed to specific agencies and specific organizations and specific communities that directly request and make these requests to us and advocate for a long time," said State Senator Paul Mark. "So, a lot of organizations have been waiting for this to come through, which is really exciting and important. A lot of good money coming for road funding, and specifically for funding in rural communities.”
It's Mark’s first budget since moving from the House to the Senate after last year’s election. He applauds that the budget includes making calls from incarcerated people locked up in Massachusetts free.
“I think it's important that people are able to keep in touch with community, in touch with family," Mark told WAMC. "We want people that are going through a bad time to have the ability to stay connected, and I think that ability to connect is going to pay. When I when I talked to the sheriffs in our area, I think they talk about that a lot, that someday you're going to get out, and you want to get out in a way that you haven't completely lost touch with what's been going on in the community around you. So, I think making this available without a cost and not charging a ridiculous price that nobody should be paying any more is just the right thing to do for everybody in the long run.”
State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who represents Pittsfield on Beacon Hill, drew attention to education spending in the budget.
“When it comes to Pittsfield, we did get a number of earmarks that help very local efforts here between, especially around food insecurity, which is what was a priority for me," she said. "Helped some veterans’ organizations and some local theaters. So, I was very pleased with that, because that little bit of money for a small organization goes a very long way. But of course, the big numbers continue to be with Chapter 70, as we continue to implement the seven-year plan to increase Chapter 70 money through the Student Opportunity Act.”
State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of the Southern Berkshires – the delegation’s dean – is bullish on the plan.
“I think it’s very good," he told WAMC. "Record amounts in local aid, record amounts in education, fully funding the Student Opportunity Act- I mean, the list goes on and on. I think it's a strong budget. It's now in the governor's hands, and we'll see what she does with it. But I think she'd be hard pressed to veto things because I think it's so strong.”
Then, of course, come the disappointments.
“The one thing that I would have liked to see more in is more funding for early education," said Farley-Bouvier. "We do have good funding in the budget at $60 million for what we call the salary rate reserve, because we really want to pay those educators. That's the key to building back our early education workforce. The House had asked for, we had asked for $100 million, the House final budget was $80 million, and in the end, it was $60 million. So that's a disappointment for me.”
“It’s personally very frustrating that we pay a penny on our sales tax now that goes directly to the MBTA in Boston," Pignatelli told WAMC. "And I find that to be somewhat a dysfunctional organization, has been for quite a long time. So, we're dumping more money towards the MBTA, using part of the Fair Share projected revenues for transportation.”
“I was a little disappointed the House had 100% reimbursement for regional school transportation, and the Senate only did 90%," said Mark. "And we ended up going in the final conference committee budget with only the 90%. And every year, that's a fight that we take on in Western Massachusetts, especially that the law says regional school transportation shall be shall be reimbursed at 100% and I don't know that the state has ever actually met that, made that commitment. And 90% is an amazing figure, it is much higher than we often get to, it’s just where the House did 100%, it feels a little disappointing that we weren't able to make that a reality.”
The budget does not include a final compromise plan for tax reform as lawmakers continue to debate the issue. Also omitted is funding for West-East rail, which Western Massachusetts legislators have long advocated for.