Big money and unfinished Beacon Hill business
No revenue constraints for now; setting priorities is key
THE LEGISLATURE PASSED a slew of bills at the end of the session, but there was still a lot of unfinished business, according to two Massachusetts policy analysts who compared notes on The Codcast.
Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University and the host of this week’s podcast, said money wasn’t the problem. Between federal aid and a huge state surplus, Horowitz said, Massachusetts had billions of dollars in extra cash.
“This session has been marked in a way quite different from earlier legislative sessions by the fact that there wasn’t a clear revenue constraint. That wasn’t what was stopping legislators from doing things,” he said.
Marie-Frances Rivera, president of the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the problem was setting priorities.
“There are big things that we need to do and I think that part of the reason why there was such chaos at the end of the session is because people are pretty shortsighted about what’s happening right now and aren’t really looking at the long term and what we’re trying to build,” Rivera said.
She said lawmakers need to get focused and address the state’s challenges in a more straightforward way. She suggested the Legislature designate specific months of the year to address key problems – for example, February for early child care and education and March for the MBTA.
“We need to pace ourselves and commit to meeting deadlines,” she said. “We’re not really having the constructive conversations that we need to have to really solve these issues.”
Rivera also urges caution on the tax cap, a voter-passed law from 1986 that was triggered this year and requires $2.9 billion in excess tax collections to be returned to taxpayers. Rivera says some of the money would go back to people who could really use it, but a lot of the money would go back to people who don’t really need it.
“There are lots of things we could do with that money,” she said, suggesting the law could be tweaked to steer the money toward addressing some of the state’s long-term problems.
Rivera also isn’t backing away from her support for a constitutional amendment imposing a tax surcharge on income over $1 million. The so-called millionaire tax, which comes before voters in November, is expected to add $1.3 billion to $2 billion a year to state coffers.
“Perhaps we have a surplus on the books right now, in this fiscal year, but we have to look at what’s the 10-year plan, what’s the 20-year plan. Our infrastructure is crumbling, right, so what revenue streams are we putting in place that are fair?” she asks.
Horowitz said he is worried about Beacon Hill’s ability to spend the money wisely. “Given what we saw this session about how legislators use money when they have it, what makes you confident that they will use the millionaire tax revenue in the ways that you are laying out?” he asked.
“To be totally honest, I’m not confident,” Rivera said.