Friday, October 12, 2001
Beacon Hill belt-tightening dismal news for MAGIC towns
Local legislators who attended Minuteman Advisory Group on Interlocal Coordination's (MAGIC) October legislative breakfast expressed little or no joy about the FY02 state budget. Lexington representative Jay Kaufman summed up the dismal financial picture when he said, "It is difficult to speak of progress and the state budget in the same sentence," and went on to talk about "a very serious bit of belt-tightening ahead."
Revenues down: cuts needed
Senator Susan Fargo's statement that state revenues are $300 million lower than last year was amended by Representative Corey Atkins, who added that not only had revenues dropped in every single category but "the whole quarter is off." Kaufman warned, "You have to anticipate serious cuts in every line item" and said serious budget decisions would have to be made. An example of the kinds of cuts anticipated was prompted by Lincoln selectman Sarah Mattes' question about the availability of special education funding and METCO monies. She was told that, although both items originally had increases, "any little item that has an increase [in this budget] is vulnerable" and Massachusetts is a state that is "at the bottom of the barrel in terms of state funding for education."
Budgetary process frustrates legislators
Everyone but the conference committee working on the FY02 budget appears to be in the dark as to the present status of budget deliberations. No one at the MAGIC breakfast felt he had any input to the conference committee. The conference committee is composed of three members appointed by the house speaker and three members appointed by the senate president. Their job is to iron out differences between the two budgets. Although the separate budgets have been debated and passed on the floor, legislators have minimum opportunity for input to the conference committee. One Republican legislator admitted he didn't know any more about the budget status than anybody else, and a Democratic legislator commented, "None of us is privy to the machinations of the conference committee . . everything is in a little black box we can't look at."
This being the case, it has been difficult for individual legislators to beat the drum for necessary local projects, and difficult at all levels to plan for the coming year. Everyone is certain of one thing, though: if funds exist, they will be cut and there won't be enough to go around. It was generally anticipated that the Big Dig would receive credit for draining existing funds, and it did, but overall diminished revenues, the imperatives of changed spending priorities since September 11, and the impenetrability of the budget process itself combined to create a more profoundly depressed financial picture than can be ascribed solely to the Big Dig.
Transportation and housing legislation
Several ongoing task forces continue to study regional transportation needs. One group is actively working to improve railway services on the Fitchburg line. Not only does equipment need repair and regular service, but the system needs double rails if it is to increase its capacity and relieve increasing stress on roadways, which lack money for repair. Parking for the T service is another need and representative Pat Wolrath reminded the group that MAGIC communities are being assessed as T communities, and should therefore be entitled to have the T service commuting needs. A Boxborough representative quipped, "It's nice to go from being ignored to hearing 'no,' " in response to transportation requests, but the answer will continue to be "no" since no funds have been budgeted for transportation needs. Members were advised to get their wish lists in anyway, in order to make their needs known if money should become available. Some legislators were hopeful that money from the federal economic stimulus package could be used to help meet transportation needs.
Other areas of concern
Three particular subjects were of concern to planners and selectmen attending the legislative breakfast. One was the availability of Community Preservation Act Funds. These monies are apportioned from one statewide pool and there is widespread concern that a large community, such as Boston, with a comparatively large request, would use up a disproportionate share of the funds being distributed. MAGIC members also continued to be concerned about cell towers, with most of their towns facing, or having faced, one or more cell-tower-related suits. Cell tower companies would rather not have to deal with separate towns, preferring a uniform, state-mandated zoning approach. There was a bill that would have, in fact, accomplished this goal, but the governor vetoed it.
Land-use issues, and in particular affordable housing issues, continue to be on everyone's front burner. Fargo advised that "affordable housing is something we have to be vigilant about. This is another area we really have to fight for." Buzz Constable of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) spoke of legislation concerning Chapter 40B (which protects so-called anti-snob zoning). He spoke in particular of the "barriers commission," a non-legislative group which advocates eliminating barriers such as zoning, health or conservation requirements in housing projects. Anti-barrier legislation would restrict local ConsCom and board of health regulations. Lexington representative Kaufman said that any modifications to 40B would probably be done in the privacy of conference committee, as part of the bond bill. Some of the 49 proposed amendments to the 40B legislation would, according to Constable, "substantially affect home rule" in regard to zoning, and should be monitored closely.
Selectman Vivian Chaput and planning board member Tom Lane represented Carlisle at the meeting.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito