On November 12, I voted in the affirmative to pass the state budget for fiscal year 2021. (July 1, 2020 – June 30, 2021.) Until this date, we have relied on sporadic supplemental budgets to fund our state for several months at a time as we waited patiently for the state to reveal its economic resilience and in hopes that the federal government would produce more aid to the Commonwealth. In midst of a global public health and economic crisis, I am proud that the House of Representatives’ budget is balanced as it supports and stabilizes programs with no cuts to services. The $45 billion budget meets the needs of the moment, focusing investments on public education, local aid, housing stability, public health, food security, developmental services, and the environment, to ensure that our people and our towns can sustain services, protect health and safety and promote economic stability.
As Vice Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, I have participated in hearings with economic experts that predicted as much as a $6 billion drop in revenue for fiscal year 2021. Patience was a virtue in allowing us to more accurately assess our economic health, even though the federal government failed to act in the “waiting “period: the outlook has improved since May, which is why this budget expects a $3 billion decrease in revenues. The gap is made up through a number of one-time revenues, including $422M in capital gains funds diverted from FY20, $834M in enhanced Medicaid payments from the federal government, $550M from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, $267M from an accelerated sales tax payment structure, and authorizing up to a $1.55 billion withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund, leaving more than half of the funds in that account untouched and available for future fiscal years.
Because of my experience as a Registered Nurse and Chair of the Needham Board of Public Health, I strongly supported public health funding in this budget. Building off legislation signed into law earlier this year to strengthen local and regional public health, we include $20M for public health critical operations and essential services, which can may help towns to strengthen contact tracing, enforcement, and other public health efforts. Beyond that, we maintain benefits and coverage for MassHealth, which has seen a surge in enrollment as people have lost their jobs, and thus, their healthcare, and establish a COVID-19 Domestic Violence Survivors’ Safety Trust Fund to to provide grants to support domestic violence liaisons in communities throughout the Commonwealth.
Earlier this year, I supported the nation’s strongest evictions and foreclosure moratorium in the country. Since the Governor allowed those protections to expire, the House budget invests in targeted housing programs that assist individuals and families in paying rent while increasing funding for homeless shelters, who, as we go into winter, must deal with limited capacity due to the greater need and constraining social distancing guidelines. Combined with CARES Act funds, the total FY21 appropriation for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) is $150M, while the budget includes $135M for housing rental vouchers. $29M in civil legal aid will help low-income tenants facing eviction have representation in court. Furthermore, we include language that restricts evictions from being executed if a tenant has an active RAFT application that has not been processed by the Administration.
The topic of food security is incredibly important, as organizations like the Needham Community Council and Medfield Food Cupboard have seen a surge in the number of families seeking assistance. With $30M for emergency food assistance, we meet the projected need for food pantries to provide nutrient-dense food and fresh produce. We also allocated $13M for the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which providers a dollar-for-dollar match to individuals using SMNAP benefits at farmers’ markets.
For Needham, Medfield and Dover, one of our many shared values is the importance of public education. So, as our schools work to improve school ventilation and air filtration, engage in hybrid/remote learning and procure personal protective equipment (PPE), the House budget maintains our commitment and ensures level funding for chapter 70 public education funding, with adjustments for inflation. We also fund a new $50M COVID student supports program, which will provide school districts with flexible dollars to adapt to this new normal of teaching. This funding formula prioritizes low-income school districts but will provide Needham with $173K, Medfield with 76K and Dover with $48K. Meanwhile, local aid, which is flexible funding that towns can use as they deem necessary, is level funded from last year. In our mission to prevent cuts, holding chapter 70 and local aid “harmless” – no cuts – was a significant priority, and I am proud that our budget lives up to this commitment.
When non-essential businesses closed down in March, many human service providers, like the Charles River Center and Riverside were also constrained in providing services while still bearing responsibility for some of our most vulnerable family, friends and neighbors. This included day and employment programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the early stages of the pandemic, I worked to secure hazard funding so they could stay afloat even while struggling to provide services in residential settings or in new and different ways. The funding levels in the House budget will stabilize struggling programs and ensure services are sustained after the pandemic to enable individuals to enjoy a full range of personal, social and community activities.
While an economic development bill, on which my colleagues in the House of Representatives have voted in the affirmative, to support restaurants and local businesses remains in conference committee, the budget invests $50M in proven programs that will support small business, including $15M for a local Payroll Protection Program, $15M for community development financial institutions, $10 million for matching grants for capital investments by businesses with twenty or fewer employers, and $6.3M for small business technical assistance.
A stroll through Cutler Park or one of the dozens other DCR parks and reservations shows how critical the outdoors and public lands have been for helping people cope during the pandemic and associated stay-at-home orders. At the same time, we’ve witnessed catastrophic events spurred by climate change that underscore the need to invest in resiliency and environmental protection. Our budget accomplishes these goals by achieving several priorities of the Green Budget, including $50M for state parks and $40M for environmental protection.
In May, our fiscal outlook was grim and the hope of level-funding services, as we have done in this budget, seemed impossible. With the leadership of the Speaker and the Chair of our House Ways and Means Committee, I am proud to have now voted for a balanced budget that sustains services and invests in programs without raising taxes. However, I remain concerned that, as every agency in state government prioritizes sustaining programs, the MBTA is proposing drastic service cuts. In March, before the pandemic, I supported raising progressive revenues, including an increase on the corporate minimum tax, in order to increase funding for transportation. Unfortunately, this bill was never considered by the State Senate. As State Representative for our communities that continue to rely on the Needham Commuter Rail line, I will work with our residents who depend on and value public transportation as well as the elected leaders, the Needham Transportation Committee and Town staffs to stop these service cuts, and I will continue to advocate for ways to direct funding to the MBTA.
Overall, the FY21 House budget is balanced with strong, targeted investments in critical programs. Despite unprecedented uncertainty and decreases in projected revenues, we have upheld our shared values and priorities. The budget now moves to the Senate, which plans to hold debate next week.
As COVID-19 cases continue to surge as we enter winter, we all need to work together to stay safe and to stay strong. I am hopeful that we will turn to a new chapter of this pandemic where public health and science will enable a strong economic recovery. Until then, we must continue to do the things that are in our control: wear a mask, even among friends and family, physically distance, wash hands. The best holiday is one in which you and your loved ones are safe and healthy.
Yours in service,