Fed Relief Eyed for Efficiency, Climate Spending
Theoharides Confident Despite Cut in Enviro Budget
3/22/21 5:40 PM
MARCH 22, 2021.....Since the last time the Legislature launched a full-scale budget process, demand for public transportation has dropped and the habits of its riders have drastically changed, people working at home or just spending more time there have seen their utility bills climb, and state parks, forests and open spaces have been deluged with people trying to get out of the house.
With the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and their ramifications in mind, Sen. Joseph Boncore and Rep. Christine Barber opened a Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing on Gov. Charlie Baker's $45.6 billion fiscal year 2022 state budget recommendation (H 1) focused on environmental, energy and transportation topics Monday.
"Our lives have returned to what we are calling, I guess now, the new normal. Congestion has returned on our roadways, frequent service on our trains and on our public transportation systems has not," said Boncore, the Winthrop Democrat who co-chairs the Transportation Committee. "As we continue our path towards a health and economic recovery, we must utilize every opportunity to prioritize public transportation, ensure energy is affordable and preserve our recreational green spaces."
Baker's budget proposes $293.3 million for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which officials said would be a 6.2 percent cut from fiscal 2021 spending in a budget that would reduce overall state spending by about $300 million or 0.7 percent while state tax revenue is expected to grow.
The governor's budget proposal also calls for about $630 million for the Department of Transportation, a roughly 2.3 percent increase over the current fiscal year.
Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs
Baker's fiscal 2022 budget proposes a funding decrease for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and most of its individual agencies, but Secretary Kathleen Theoharides and most of her lieutenants told lawmakers Monday that they feel comfortable that it would provide the funding and staffing they require. They also reminded lawmakers that they have capital dollars available to fund some projects as well.
"The governor's FY22 H 1 budget recommendation would expand land stewardship, conservation and public access to recreational resources, and secure the reliable low-carbon and lower-cost energy future that commonwealth residents deserve," Theoharides said. She added, "We're trying to balance budgets across the state in this difficult time and the commitment we've made to environmental protection, to climate change and to clean energy remains really clear."
Though the office of the secretary is pegged for a 2.6 percent increase, other key areas are expected to see cuts: $8 million less for the Department of Environmental Protection, a $10.9 million cut to the Department of Agricultural Resources, about $670,000 less for the Department of Fish and Game, a small reduction for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and level funding for the Department of Public Utilities and Department of Energy Resources.
Sen. Michael Barrett, the only other lawmaker to directly participate in Monday's budget hearing, said he is planning to advocate for a staffing increase for EEA so that it can ensure that it has the ability to fully comply with the numerous new mandates imposed by a climate policy bill that is expected to become law in the coming weeks.
In particular, Barrett said he wants to make sure EEA will be able to comply with the bill's requirement that the administration develop a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2025, establish specific sublimits for emissions from six sectors of the economy and publish a plan for hitting the targets by July 1, 2022, one day after fiscal 2022 ends.
"As a practical matter, all the work to develop the 2025 limit and the six 2025 sublimits, which are legally binding, are going to have to be done during this fiscal year and I want to be certain that you have enough [full-time equivalents] because I appreciate, first of all, the incredible sweep of responsibility you currently shoulder and, secondly, the magnitude of the new responsibilities that we are asking you to discharge," he said.
Theoharides told Barrett that her secretariat's budget decrease is due to the removal of $3 million in "climate unrelated earmarks," the elimination of $8 million in one-time expenses and the shrinking of the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program from $30 million total to $20 million.
"So the decrease is unrelated to climate change," the secretary said. "The funding in EEA's budget for climate change has remained the same."
Theoharides and the heads of several departments that fall within EEA touched on a number of other initiatives during Monday's budget hearing:
- TCI Update: The secretary said her office and her counterparts in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. have "developed and are beginning to stakeholder a model rule" that would enable the Transportation Climate Initiative process to move forward. Late last year, the three states and D.C. entered into a memorandum of understanding to jointly develop a regional cap-and-invest program to reduce carbon pollution from cars and trucks and generate the resources needed to expand clean transit options and improve public health.
The states and D.C. must also establish the entity that will handle the auctions at which fuel suppliers that transport gasoline into Massachusetts and other states will purchase allowances, the secretary said. But before the program can truly get off the ground, she said, Connecticut and Rhode Island must both "get authorizing legislation from their Legislature to implement the program." The TCI program is expected to begin in 2022 with a reporting-only year.
- DCR staffing: The $102.5 million budget Baker has recommended for DCR represents a decrease of about 0.7 percent from fiscal year 2021 levels, but Commissioner Jim Montgomery told lawmakers Monday that he will have enough money -- between the budgeted funding and retained parking revenue -- to boost DCR staffing to its highest level since the start of the Baker administration.
"Yes," Montgomery said when Barber asked if the governor's recommendation is enough to adequately fund the state's parks. "I really feel that the last several years our budgets have increased each year, our staffing has been able to go up, and we anticipate by the end of this fiscal year that we will be at a staffing level which is our highest since FY15. So we have made incremental increases in our staffing, the capital plan has been able to do a lot of the deferred maintenance. When I say we have adequate funds, it doesn't mean we can fund everything today but I think we have a good plan going forward to address a lot of those deferred needs."
- Rail trails: Baker's fiscal 2022 budget proposal includes an outside policy section that would allow cities and towns that have adopted the Community Preservation Act to use related funding to support rail trail projects. Roughly 186 of the state's 351 municipalities have adopted the CPA to charge a property tax surcharge to preserve open space, renovate historic buildings and parks and build new playgrounds and athletic fields. The state matches some of the funds that each municipality raises, about 20 percent in recent years.
"Under current law, they can't use those funds to acquire land for rail trails because of the reversionary rights that railroads maintained pursuant to federal law. This section would amend the CPA to allow communities to evaluate particular projects and, when the risk is minimal, choose to use CPA funds," Theoharides said. "This is something we've seen as an important item in the COVID pandemic -- the need for access to recreational assets in every community across the commonwealth -- and this proposal would give our cities and towns additional flexibility needed to grow and fund these types of projects."
- Solar at DCR facilities: Fourteen specifically-designated Department of Conservation and Recreation sites across the state could soon host solar arrays under another of Baker's proposed outside sections. The panels would be installed, Theoharides said, at skating rinks, maintenance facilities, parking garages and other DCR locations. DCR is working with other agencies to identify which 14 locations would be best suited for solar.
"Importantly, we're not looking to put up solar on DCR open space or land. This is really looking to utilize some of our hard infrastructure -- skating rinks or parking garages -- to put solar onto," the secretary said.
- Federal relief: Theoharides said Monday she did not have precise details on how much federal aid her secretariat expects to receive through the $1.9 trillion federal relief and stimulus plan recently signed into law, but said the administration is busy identifying possible uses of the just over $4.5 billion in state government aid in the package.
"We do anticipate that funding can be used for energy and environmental priorities and are in the midst of working across the administration to develop priorities for funding," the secretary said. "High on our list are energy efficiency and climate resiliency. So those are two of the many things that we see as a real opportunity to drive towards our climate goals while creating good jobs in the state. So it's something we're looking at."
Executive Office of Transportation
Acting Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler told Boncore, Barber and Barrett that the governor's fiscal 2022 budget plan calls for a transfer of $628.4 million from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund for MassDOT, an increase of $17.3 million over the current budget year.
"I just want to hit what we think some of the highlights of the funding proposal in House 1 are: $307 [million] for the non-toll road operations and personnel at MassDOT, and that really covers everything from our roadway maintenance, planning, project management, the RMV, aeronautics, including all of our enterprise services ... snow and ice, $95 million," Tesler, who served as registrar of motor vehicles before filling the void left by Stephanie Pollack's departure earlier this year, said. "This includes the $127 million in contract assistance at the MBTA, funding for the 15 [regional transit authorities], then approximately $11 million for the operations of the Merit Rating Board.
Tesler and others also filled Ways and Means Committee members in on other aspects of Baker's budget proposal:
- Distracted driving: In the first full year of a state law prohibiting the use of a hand-held electronic device, like a cellphone, by anyone operating a motor vehicle, the state's Merit Rating Board processed 31,905 citations and more than 251,000 paper warnings related to the new law, Acting Registrar Colleen Ogilvie said.
- Small bridges: The state has funded 117 projects through the municipal small bridges program introduced a few years back, Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said. Because most bridge projects take about three years to complete, he said most of the projects will come to completion in 2021 or 2022. Right now, Gulliver said, there are nine projects in the contracting stage, 42 projects that are being designed and permitted, 39 projects have begun construction and 27 projects have been completed.
- Future of MBTA oversight: Tesler reminded lawmakers Monday that the MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board is set to sunset at the end of the current fiscal year. Baker's budget includes outside sections that would establish a new board of directors for the MBTA effective July 1, 2021. "This is a section that's been filed before, but we want to stress the importance of that," Tesler said. The FMCB was due to sunset last summer, but the Legislature extended its tenure for a year.
- REAL ID: Starting Oct. 1, 2021, a standard driver's license will no longer be accepted as identification for domestic air travel or entering federal buildings and nuclear power plants. Instead, a traveler will need a U.S. passport or a license that meets REAL ID requirements. So far, about one-third of all Massachusetts credential holders have obtained a REAL ID, Ogilvie said. The acting registrar said the RMV issues about 5.84 million credentials in total -- 1.89 million are REAL ID-compliant, 1.99 million are "standard" credentials that do not meet REAL ID requirements, and about 1.96 million people have "legacy" credentials, meaning they have not yet applied for a REAL ID and have not hit their five-year license renewal yet.
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