Governor Baker proposes using state cash bonanza for school safety measures
Governor Charlie Baker proposed Friday plowing $72 million into school safety, harnessing a surge in tax revenue to hand local districts an election-year cash infusion for hiring more mental health specialists and upgrading security at educational facilities.
The plan comes in the wake of several high-profile mass shootings at schools across the United States, and is part of a national trend of government leaders trying to reduce the risk of such tragedies.
“This is something that we have been discussing with colleagues at the local level for the past several months, especially after Parkland,” Baker said at a news conference, referring to the February shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people and wounded 17 others. “Their number one request was funding to enhance the state support for social workers, mental health workers, and counselors in schools.”
The proposal would make $40 million in grants for such positions available through the middle of 2020.
It would also appropriate $32 million for school security and communications upgrades such as cameras and alarms; training for school resource officers, educators, and others; creating a tip line to provide public safety and school personnel with timely information on potential risks; a public awareness “Say Something” campaign; and other similar efforts through the middle of 2021.
Baker also noted to reporters that he recently signed into law a bill, championed by the Legislature, that gives courts the authority to strip weapons from people who have been identified by their families as a danger to themselves or others. And he underscored that, according to recent federal data, Massachusetts had a lower per capita rate of firearm deaths than any other state.
The safety package is part of Baker’s budgetary framework to spend the $1 billion in unexpected tax revenue the state saw in the fiscal year that ended June 30. After accounting for certain mandatory spending — including about a half-billion-dollar deposit into the state’s rainy day fund — Baker, a Republican who is up for reelection in November, is proposing $575 million in outlays with the surplus cash.
Alongside school safety and tens of millions of dollars worth of other education spending initiatives, the supplemental budget also includes:
■ $140 million to pay for costs at MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program;
■ $50 million for helping cities and towns repair roads and bridges;
■ $35 million for snow and ice costs from last winter;
■ $30 million for municipal and regional water infrastructure;
■ $5 million for housing evacuees after FEMA benefits end;
■ and $3 million for the Cannabis Control Commission to fund costs related to the pot agency’s beginning oversight of the state’s medical marijuana program.
The proposed money for cities and towns left some municipal officials smiling ear to ear.
“There’s a lot to like here,” Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said in an e-mail. “We hope this proposal is on a fast track, because municipal leaders can put these resources to work immediately to help every community.”
But Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston expressed frustration that the governor didn’t propose using more of the revenue windfall to help cities pay for education.
“I am disappointed by the continued underfunding of existing education obligations for cities and towns, despite having adequate resources to do so while still making new investments,” Walsh said in a statement. With state tax revenue way above expectations, “I encourage the governor and the Legislature to return to the practice of fully funding the charter reimbursement and support students at Boston Public Schools and across the Commonwealth.”
The governor files a final spending plan after the end of every fiscal year — to pay, for example, bills that exceeded expectations on, say, health care for the poor. What’s unusual this year is policy makers have the flexibility to spend so much unanticipated cash.
Experts and politicos on and off Beacon Hill attribute at least part of the windfall, and maybe most of it, to the federal tax overhaul that President Trump pushed through at the end of last year.
“We believe tax reform had a big impact on a whole series of decisions that people made with respect to estate tax revenue, with respect to corporate tax revenue, the repatriation of funds from overseas, and the capital gains numbers,” the governor said, referring to levies paid on investment profits. “We believe all of those things were related to tax reform and turned into very big [tax revenue] numbers” for the state.
Like any other bill, the Democratic-controlled Legislature will have a chance to rewrite it, adjusting spending priorities. Spokespeople for the House speaker and Senate president did not respond to requests for comment.
Watchdogs say whatever lawmakers focus the money toward, it’s best to spend the cash on costs that won’t reoccur.
“Any time you have an end-of-year surplus, the concern is: those revenues often are not sustained going forward,” said Doug Howgate of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “So you don’t want to make spending choices that tie your hands in the future.”
Baker’s proposal to close out the last fiscal year comes as the budget for the current fiscal year that began July 1 still hasn’t been sent to his desk by lawmakers.
The Democratic-controlled House and Senate have both passed their own versions of a $41 billion spending plan. But, so far, they haven’t been able to reconcile the two bills despite relatively narrow differences in spending levels.
State government continues to run because there is an interim budget in place that will keep the lights on through the end of the month.