Friday, March 7, 2003
Legislators fear budget cuts and new priorities
The tone at the February 13 semi-annual legislative breakfast, hosted by the Minuteman Advisory Group on Interlocal Coordination (MAGIC), was one of a storm watch · full of uncertainty about where the power is now and where it will go (either central consolidation or locally). Phrases like "hope to do" and "ought to be" were heard from legislators on both sides of the aisle and replaced former discussions of specific projects or pending legislation Also, like a storm watch, there was general uncertainty about how it was all going to turn out, with phrases like "dire consequences" and "this is not going to go away" punctuating the discussion. All seemed to be wariness and readiness for change, with general uncertainty about which direction this particular storm was going to take.
Local hot issues
Legislators and other guests initially were asked to identify their "hot button" issues. The budget and the Land Use Reform Act (LURA) were the two most frequently mentioned and Chapter 40B affordable housing issues were next in order. Transportation, which has been MAGIC's long-term focus, was barely mentioned, though transportation and unfunded mandates were of concern.
Everyone who spoke at the breakfast meeting conceded there is not much left to cut out of the state budget without cutting core services. "We have made all the easy cuts in the last two years," said state representative Pat Wolrath. Restructuring is seen as one possibility for dealing with the financial crisis. New legislation affecting unfunded mandates, such as special education, is also considered an avenue for addressing financial pressures. Cory Atkins, Carlisle's representative, noted that the new administration and the very large budget gap between income and expenditure were leading to new ways of thinking. She said that the new governor's changes would probably prevail since "I don't see our chamber having a 2/3 vote" to override a veto.
Some cited examples of budget cuts are a moratorium on new school building projects, which have traditionally relied on state reimbursement, a projected increase in health insurance premiums for municipal employees and a moratorium on local reimbursements for SPED (special education) residential placements. Since "Massachusetts has a lot of kids with a broad spectrum of needs, and problems are growing," Senator Fargo sees SPED funding as an area of increasing need where the community has little control. If the SPED problem is not resolved at the state level, we need to pressure Washington to either eliminate or fund the unfunded mandates, she said.
Transportation has been a ongoing issue for MAGIC communities whose roads are increasingly crowded with commuter traffic. Massachusetts is said to have the third worst quality of roads in the nation. There was group speculation about how Governor Romney's reorganization of leadership might affect transportation. Historically, transportation project selection has been controlled by individual transportation agencies, for example, Mass Highway, which is seen as a monolith.
It is recognized that transportation and land use are connected · roads will go where homes are built · and several at the breakfast meeting spoke about smart growth, or planning for land use, as a means of achieving a better selection of tranportation projects.
Doug Foy, the new head of Commonwealth Development, wants to combine the Land Use Reform Act (LURA) with smart growth and Chapter 40B, but whether this occurs, according to state senator Pam Resor, depends on which of several bills is passed. Legislators had a general concern that "the undergrowth" of 40B affordable housing would overshadow other important issues. Legislators urged local initiatives on affordable housing.
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