Spilka Weighs In On Taxes, Early Ed, Public Health
Outlines Focus Areas During AIM Executive Forum
3/26/21 12:03 PM
MARCH 26, 2021.....Holding the line on new taxes. Reforming early education and child care. Getting people out of their cars.
With a major climate policy bill set to become law Friday and work on key unemployment system changes nearly complete, one of Beacon Hill's most powerful legislators, Senate President Karen Spilka, on Friday morning outlined other likely focus areas for the Senate in the coming weeks and months.
The Ashland Democrat's list, as described during an early morning Associated Industries of Massachusetts executive forum, also includes fully funding the state's new education equity law, increasing investments in public health infrastructure, and minimizing additional draws from the state's cash reserves.
Spilka also announced that a new panel led by Sen. Adam Hinds to help Massachusetts reimagine its post-pandemic future and "come back better" will hold an April 6 session to hear about business, housing and the digital divide, and an April 14 listening session focused on education and child care.
The policy and spending agenda she outlined comes a day after House Speaker Ronald Mariano named job creation and training, improved access to broadband, and offshore wind energy as among his favored investment areas.
Spilka's Senate Democrats last session led a deep dive into state tax policy and that group led by Hinds is expected to release its conclusions this spring.
But with House and Senate budget debates on deck, Spilka echoed Mariano's recent statements about tax increases -- the Quincy Democrat said last month that "we have no intention of raising taxes."
Noting she remains concerned about wealth gaps and saying there is "room for improvement" in the state tax code over the long term, Spilka recalled how in 2020 Beacon Hill resisted tax increases when the pandemic struck, and job losses mounted.
"It was not the time to pass any broad-based tax increases," she said. "Our outlook, I believe, is still precarious and we need to be cautious. So I anticipate continuing to hold this view."
Equating the importance of child care to transportation, Spilka said the pandemic exposed gender pay gaps and "wiped out" a decade of progress for women.
"I have to say that gives me the chills and goosebumps," she said. "We must take a close look at the factors that affect women's employment moving forward and the most obvious place to start is child care."
In addition to the educational importance to children, Spilka emphasized the role that quality child care and early education can plan in ensuring that all residents are participating in and growing the state's economy, and pointed to the availability of $500 million in supports in the American Rescue Plan.
"So the Senate will continue to prioritize, and we will work to reform, to update, to meet the needs, the true needs of our residents, post-pandemic, we will reform early education and child care moving forward," she said.
With remote work likely to endure, Spilka said that even the locations of child care facilities is an issue. She also highlighted the potential for broadening hours to meet the needs of working parents and addressing how centers are paid.
"Right now we pay per child, per head, and that hasn't worked because child care centers need to be open and their funding model now figures it out with a full capacity. We realized during the pandemic not all of them had full capacities. So what can we do to support our centers? What can businesses do?" she said. "Because clearly businesses benefit from child care. I would imagine all businesses want to get the best talent that they can ... and oftentimes it happens to be a woman and we should make sure that we foster that and support it and put the resources necessary to do that."
In January, Gov. Baker signed a $16.5 billion multi-year capital funding bill for transportation, but vetoed measures raising fees on ride-hailing services, creating a commission to study congestion pricing systems and requiring the MBTA to launch a low-income fare program.
Spilka said the new law will still make transportation more reliable and accessible, and vowed to continue pursuing policies to change behaviors.
"I have often said that my goal is to get people out of their cars and into public transportation," she said. "And we all know that it's more easily said than done. But the Senate is really committed to continuing to work on policies that will help change people's behavior. So that will ultimately be done."
Education, Public Health, State Finances
Since the release of Baker's $45.6 billion fiscal 2022 budget, critics have alleged that the governor underfunded aid to schools under the new seven-year Student Opportunity Act by using enrollment projections that don't capture students likely to return to classrooms in the fall of 2021.
State officials last year skipped the first of seven scheduled funding years under the $1.5 billion law. They now face pressure to meet funding commitments they made in November 2019 when they agreed to the big investments without establishing a dedicated funding source for the law.
Without getting into specific numbers or the enrollment debate, Spilka said, "I can tell you right now the Senate intends to fulfill our promise to fully fund the Student Opportunity Act, which is so important and so timely. We need to make sure we do that."
Spilka said the pandemic has "held a mirror to our public health infrastructure and ability to respond to widespread emergencies, and we know that there are lessons to learn," and cited research conducted recently by lawmakers seated on a new committee.
"What we have heard is clear -- that we need increased investment in our public health infrastructure, especially if we anticipate any other large-scale emergencies in the future, which we know are likely," Spilka said. "So while we continue to work on health care affordability and overall access, particularly in mental health, I anticipate public health being a big part of our discussion this session as well."
Public health investments, either at the local or state levels, will come into clearer focus during legislative budget deliberations in April and May.
Spilka said "replacing" $3.5 billion in one-time fiscal 2021 revenues will be one of the biggest challenges for budget writers. However, with state tax collections surpassing estimates and "billions" in federal aid flowing in, Spilka said, "I hope to really minimize any withdrawal from our rainy day fund."
In his fiscal 2022 budget proposal, which was released before the American Rescue Act was signed, Baker did not call for tax increases on residents and proposed trimming state spending by about $300 million even though state tax revenues are expected to rise 3.5 percent over the current budget year. Baker also proposed spending $1.6 billion in one-time revenues drawn from the state's rainy day fund.
Gross MassHealth spending in Baker's budget would fall from $18.2 billion this year to $17.6 billion in fiscal 2022, while all non-MassHealth spending in his annual spending blueprint is slated to increase by 1 percent, from $27.7 billion to $28 billion, the administration said.
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