Anti-violence funds jeopardized by House-Senate flap
Senate balks at funding program in supplemental budget
THE SENATE IS taking the lead on Beacon Hill on criminal justice reform, but the chamber seems to have lost its way on a key initiative to help gang members go straight and stay out of prison.
The Senate and House both passed budget measures last week intended to close the books on spending for the fiscal 2017 budget. While the two bills agree on funding for many items, the House version included $4.75 million for the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative while the Senate allocated no funds for the program.
The Senate move has puzzled – and frustrated — leaders of organizations across the state that count on the funding for their outreach efforts because the Senate has been very supportive of funding efforts for the anti-gang violence initiative in the past.
“We’re definitely disappointed,” said Geoff Foster, director of organizing and policy at UTEC, a Lowell-based nonprofit that works with gang-involved youth in Lowell and Lawrence and relies on SSYI funding for some of its programs.
Sen. Karen Spilka, the chair of the Senate and Ways and Means Committee, said SSYI funding is “a Senate priority,” but was not included because her goal in the supplemental budget was to focus on closing spending on the 2017 budget, which the state comptroller requires by the end of October. The money allocated for the program by the House would supplement SSYI funding in the 2018 budget. Gov. Charlie Baker has also proposed boosting 2018 SSYI funding through a supplemental budget he filed in August.
“We’re trying to look at the books for ’17, and then look forward to how we are doing in our revenue and if there’s money, then take a look at a supplemental [budget] for ’18,” Spilka said.
But Spilka raised a caution flag about how much additional spending for the 2018 budget will be realistic. “We’re being told there is no money for ’18,” she said, citing the state’s constrained revenue picture.
The situation has turned the conventional positioning of State House players on its head, with the Republican governor and more fiscally conservative House supporting an initiative aimed at low-income urban youth, while the more liberal Senate is suddenly the one pulling hard on the state’s purse strings.
Even Spilka’s own colleagues are pushing back against her hard line spending stance. Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn is asking colleagues to sign on to a letter he drafted calling on Spilka to support the House proposal for SSYI funding.
Sanchez dismissed Spilka’s position that the supplemental spending plan should be limited to closing out the 2017 budget. He said supplemental budgets regularly deal with both the past budget year and include spending that lawmakers feel is a priority for the current year.
“I just don’t understand the game,” said Sanchez, who was named in July to the top House budget post. “I’m new to this office, but I’m not new to this building and I’m not new to politics.”
The Safe and Successful Youth Initiative has been widely hailed as an effective approach to curtailing youth violence. The program was launched in 2012 under the Patrick administration and earmarks funding to programs that deal with “proven risk” young people, aged 17 to 24, in 12 Massachusetts cities.
A 2014 report by independent research analysts at American Institutes for Research and WestEd showed that young people reached by an SSYI-funded program were 58 percent less likely to be incarcerated than young people with similar backgrounds who were not reached by the program. The report also found that for every $1 spent on SSYI in Boston and Springfield there was about $7 in crime-related savings in police, court system, probation, and other costs.
The program has faced funding challenges in the state budget in recent years. It received $6.6 million in the 2017 budget. This spring, the Senate’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 called for increasing funding to $7.5 million while the House budget proposed $6 million. The House-Senate conference committee that worked out a final budget did not reach a compromise, and ended up lowering funding to $4.25 million, a 35 percent cut from last year’s appropriation.
Organizations that depend on SSYI funding began bracing over the summer for reductions in funding, which would mean layoff of outreach workers and curtailment of programs.
Gov. Charlie Baker has been a big supporter of the program, and in August he filed a supplemental budget request that would add $3 million to SSYI. His health and human services secretary, Marylou Sudders, said last month that she was holding off on new contracts with agencies that would impose the 35 percent budget cut in the hope that the Legislature would act soon on the governor’s request and restore funding for SSYI.
When the House took up a supplemental budget last week, it not only included the administration’s request but boosted it to $4.75 million. “That was really good news,” said Foster, the UTEC organization and policy director. He said that would put SSYI funding close to what the initiative received in 2014, the high water mark for state funding of the program.
But omission of SSYI from the Senate supplemental budget now leaves funding for the program in doubt.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” Foster said of the Senate supplemental budget. “We know the budget is tight, but I think the return on investment for SSYI is something everyone should rally behind. SSYI provides so many stories of young people that decided to give up the street life and find a successful, positive way to engage their community.”
The flap over the supplemental spending plans seems to reflect wider tensions between the Legislature’s two branches.Sanchez pointed to last week’s State House rally in support of criminal justice reform, which took place right outside his office. He said senators seemed to be whipping up the crowd to apply pressure on the House to pass whatever the Senate ultimately approves. He said the senators seemed to be presuming the House will be an obstacle to reform.
“I saw a lot of podium banging out here,” he said about the rally, which stretched on for nearly two hours. “This vilifying of the work of members of the House that work really hard – it’s got to stop,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to work together and stop this grandstanding.”