Lawmakers going off-the-books for police training

$2 fee on rental cars follows pattern of fire training

THE LEGISLATURE APPEARS POISED to shift the cost of municipal police training on to people renting cars in Massachusetts, adopting a funding philosophy for law enforcement that was pioneered decades ago for firefighters and which some believe has spiraled out of control.

The Senate and House moved on Wednesday to pass legislation assessing a $2 fee on all rental car contracts with the estimated $7 to $8 million in revenue (some say the amount could go as high as $10 million) going to fund training programs for municipal police officers. The bill, once it makes it through both branches, will go to the governor, who has not indicated what he will do with it.

Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez of Jamaica Plain, the chairman of the House budget committee, said the new funding approach was needed to provide a steady stream of money for police training. He also indicated another advantage of the approach was that the cost would be shouldered primarily by visitors from out-of-state. Sanchez’s counterpart in the Senate, Karen Spilka of Ashland, said she was in favor of the funding approach because the police needed a reliable, dedicated funding stream.

The rental car fee to support police training is patterned after a long-established assessment on property and casualty insurance companies to support fire training. That assessment, initiated at a very low level in the early 1970s in response to two horrific fires, has grown rapidly recently, tripling to more than $28 million over the last 14 years. In recent years, lawmakers have come to view the purpose of the account more broadly, using it to fund virtually any municipal expense that has a connection to fires or firefighting.

The Legislature’s $41.88 billion budget for fiscal 2019, which was approved on Wednesday, continued the trend. Gov. Charlie Baker recommended $22.3 million for the Department of Fire Services, the House budgeted $23 million, and the Senate appropriated $25.5 million. The final legislative budget came in at $27.3 million, including more than $2 million in vaguely worded earmarks for a variety of local expenses, including fire station improvements ($100,000 apiece in Maynard and Scituate); fire department upgrades ($22,000 in Medway); safety equipment ($100,000 in Worcester, $75,000 in Stoneham, $65,000 in Winthrop, and $50,000 in Saugus); fire gear ($24,000 in Wellesley); and Hazmat teams ($500,000 for Cambridge, Boston and Everett and $50,000 for Quincy).

The final assessment on insurance companies selling property and casualty policies in Massachusetts will rise well above the $27 million appropriation once fringe benefit costs for personnel are added in.

Baker this year tried to shift the roughly $3 million cost of a State Police arson squad into the line item for the Department of Fire Services, but the Legislature rejected that approach. Baker typically vetoes the earmarks inserted into the line item by lawmakers and the Legislature overrides his vetoes easily.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The off-the-books funding mechanisms the Legislature appears to be embracing were the focus of a recent feature in CommonWealth. In that article, Frank O’Brien, the vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, was quoted as saying the account has morphed into something much bigger than intended and the cost is being passed along in the form of a “hidden tax” to insurance customers. He also questioned whether one industry should bear the cost for a public safety function that benefits the state as a whole.

O’Brien said on Wednesday that the Legislature’s budget for fiscal 2019 indicates little has changed except the numbers, which keep going up. “I don’t care what neighborhood you come from, $27 million is a lot of money,” he said.