Lawmakers debate how to spend surplus

Massachusetts State House. March 20, 2018. Photo by Gaelen Morse / BU News Service

By Sophia Eppolito
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was originally published in the Lowell Sun.

BOSTON — Nearly three months after ending the fiscal year with an approximately $1.1 billion budget surplus, local legislators are weighing in on how much of that money will be spent and on what priorities.

“Negotiations are ongoing on that subject,” Mark Sternman, a spokesman for Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee said about the budget designed to wrap up obligations from the state’s fiscal 2018 spending.

Gov. Charlie Baker filed a proposal with lawmakers in July that would involve spending about $150 million of the surplus on public education initiatives, including school safety. The Legislature’s formal sessions ended Aug. 1 without acting on the measure.

About $400 million to $500 million of the surplus is expected to be directed to the state’s rainy day fund, bringing it to a balance of approximately $1.8 billion. The amount of money that will be available for other spending could range from $150 million to $300 million.

Some legislators suggested that the money be put toward widespread issues like education, health care, and transportation while others argued that the money should be put toward a potential tax break

Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell, said the extra money should be spent on “one-time expenditures,” since there is no guarantee that this kind of surplus will continue over the coming years.

“There are many different areas that you could be putting additional funds, but the important thing is to not create a structural deficit for fiscal year 2019,” Golden said. “We should be looking at, in my opinion, transportation, mental health and substance abuse, but we should be looking toward cities and towns to see if there’s any one-time expenditures that we could assist municipalities with.”

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said he would like to see the funds directed toward education as well as providing support for families who are struggling to care for an elderly parent.

“You’re seeing President Trump try to cut some of the subsidies that help make health care affordable for working families so I would love for us to provide more support,” said Eldridge, whose district includes Acton and Ayer. “The funding for adult daycare has been cut by Governor Baker over the year so I’d like to see those investments go up.”

Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica, said a portion of the surplus should go toward tax relief and the rest “should go back to cities and towns.”

“I think it’s time to roll back the income and the sales tax to 5 percent,” Lombardo said. “The sales tax was raised in 2008 at a time that was called a financial crisis. Well clearly the crisis is over. It’s time to give back to the hardworking residents of the Commonwealth.”

Republican state Senate candidate John MacDonald had similar thoughts.

“I’d like the see the vast majority of that surplus put away into the rainy day fund if they do decide they’re going to do anything with it,” said MacDonald. “There’s always something that happens that requires us dipping into that fund.”

MacDonald’s Democratic opponent, City Councilor Edward Kennedy said he would like to see the money be directed toward public education.

There have also been calls for financial assistance for the victims of the Sept. 13 gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley.

“We have a lot of people that have lost their homes. We have a lot of people who won’t be able to get back into their homes for a month or two or three,” Rep. David Nangle, D-Lowell said. “We need to do something that could help the impacted areas up there.”

Some of the surplus should be spent on relief for the victims, but Columbia Gas should ultimately be financially responsible, Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, said in a statement.

“I’d like to add that as I’ve been on the ground the past week helping folks recover from the gas explosions, we may end up needing to appropriate money for the relief effort to cover costs up front, but I firmly believe that should be reimbursed to our state by Columbia Gas,” said L’Italien, whose district includes Tewksbury and Dracut.

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