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Mass. Senate panel cuts $450m from water bill

Measure aimed at addressing infrastructure

The state Senate plans to tackle legislation next week addressing unmet funding for water infrastructure improvements, but the bill that will emerge for consideration has been stripped of $450 million recommended by a joint legislative committee.

The Senate Bonding Committee, chaired by Senator Brian Joyce of Milton, advanced a version of the bill this week that does not include an authorization for $250 million in borrowing for the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust and up to $200 million for infrastructure from capital gains revenues.

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The bill recommended by the Senate Bonding Committee closely resembles the original legislation filed by Senate President Therese Murray and Senator James B. Eldridge, Democrat of Acton. Its key component is a $50 million increase, to $138 million, in the bond cap for the newly named Clean Water Trust, with a floor for annual spending set at 80 percent of the cap.

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Ways and Means, and the Senate plans to debate a final version Thursday. Joyce’s office estimates unmet sewer, water, and storm-water system infrastructure maintenance needs at $39 billion over two decades.

Under the bill, the trust would also be given the flexibility to set interest rates on municipal loans between 0 percent and 2 percent and to create a principal loan forgiveness program for qualified projects.

The Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, which reviewed the original bill, proposed the significant financial resources as a way to begin tackling the massive long-term funding gap identified by a special commission that examined the issues and needs.

Murray said in December that a substantially rewritten proposal by the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture would probably look more like the bill she proposed with Eldridge when it comes out of the Senate.

“It will come out of the Senate very different than we received it,” Murray said. “I know why they think they had to put all that funding in there, but the treasurer’s made it very clear to us that that’s problematic, which we knew, which is why we didn’t do it.”

She continued, “I’m not comfortable — too much borrowing, and we have a limit in how much we can bond. That would put us way over that limit.”

The bill would also seek to encourage more cities and towns to participate in the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority by defraying the cost of joining the MWRA. Under the bill, the state and cities and towns could split the $5 million cost of joining.

The MWRA provides water or sewer services to 61 communities, and members generally pay higher rates than many communities because of investments made for the Boston Harbor cleanup and treatment facilities. Murray and Eldridge said expanding participation in the MWRA may reduce water and sewer rates in the system.

Representative Carolyn C. Dykema, a Holliston Democrat, chaired the special commission with Eldridge. She has been pushing for the Legislature to consider the $250 million borrowing investment.

Even before a water main break that created a sinkhole in the parking lot of the Burlington Mall and forced the closing of the shopping center Thursday, Dykema had pointed to a string of water pipe breaks, including one near the State House, to make a case for significant investments.

Emily Kowtoniuk, chief of staff to Joyce and the Senate Bonding Committee, said that Joyce came away from hearings on the bill with an appreciation for how dramatic the unmet need is at the local level, but shared Murray’s concerns about additional debt.

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