It's Budget Week At The Massachusetts House Of Representatives

Apr 22, 2019

Massachusetts lawmakers this week will consider the proposed House Ways and Means budget — and some 1,300 amendments — as the the debate begins. 

For our quick look at the week ahead in state politics and government, Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk through what has emerged as early points of contention.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: School vacation week — a slow week — but some of our team here spent some time poring through some of these amendments.

What we saw was a real tension between a good number of lawmakers who would like to spend considerably more resources on things like education. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who's kind of postponed and hit the pause button on the revenue tax debate, for now, is hoping to have that later in the year, and keep this budget rather clean, in terms of new taxes and spending.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: How quickly will they be able to whittle down those amendments?

This will be interesting to see, how the new chairman — Representative Aaron Michlewitz of Boston — handles this debate. This is obviously his first budget. He'll be feeling his way through this process.

What we understand is that they're going to be sticking pretty much to the tried-and-true formula of taking this subject by subject, having meetings with members — kind of in a back room — consolidating these amendments into big bundles, and trying to pass them through. If history holds, we could be looking at probably a Wednesday or Thursday conclusion to this debate.

New numbers for Massachusetts show unemployment in the state holding steady at 3 percent. Does that pretty good health number factor into all the decisions that lawmakers have to make at budget time?

This has been a tricky thing for them to figure out, because the economy, by those metrics, seems to be humming along quite well. Unemployment really remains low. People are working. But tax revenues themselves have not been quite as robust. 

A table shows the Massachusetts unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2019.
Credit Massachusetts Division of Unemployment Assistance / State of Massachusetts

And if we think back to last year at this time, state budget writers were looking at potential huge surpluses. Tax revenues were surging. That has slowed down a bit, at least compared to their estimates right now.

Two thirds, three quarters of the way through fiscal 2019, the state is just basically in line with its revenue estimates — about $19 million over, after being underwater for a few months. So there are a lot of outside groups and people inside the legislature urging caution on spending, because there is this fear that a recession, or at least an economic slowdown, could be on the horizon.

School funding is always a big and tricky part of the budget debate. But I understand House Speaker Bob DeLeo wants to deal with that in some larger way, in a different arena. Can you explain that?

This is what a lot of people are hoping will be the culmination — this year — of a years-long debate about how to revamp the way the state pays for public education.

But that debate, as we stand now, is not close to being over.

And it is taking place right now in the Joint Committee on Education, and that's where it will stay — which created a situation, as we look at this budget, about what to do with funding, particularly for Chapter 70.

What we've seen the House do is put significantly more resources into this local aid program for schools. They've bumped it up $236 million over FY '19 numbers. This is a much larger increase than we've seen in past years, and they've even set aside a small reserve to help with school districts that have large proportions of low-income students, knowing that the eventual funding formula revamp will probably account for the high cost of educating these groups of students, like low-income students.

But without knowing exactly how that formula is going to be rewritten, there are lawmakers who would like to see more money put into this. They think that this doesn't go far enough, and that's a bit of one area of the tension we spoke about earlier, between people who are really kind of craving this debate over revenues, and wanting now to spend significantly more resources on some of these priorities, and the Speaker — who's kind of trying to take a slower, more cautious approach.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.