Gateway Cities caucus flexing its muscle

Lawmakers secure benefits for their struggling communities

The four-year-old Gateway Cities legislative caucus began flexing its muscle this term, winning support for a host of new and expanded tax credits, grants, and enhanced education programs.

The caucus, which includes lawmakers from the 24 Gateway Cities, is finding strength in numbers. It has 57 House members, or just under a third of the total, and 21 Senate members, more than half of that body.

State Rep. Antonio Cabral, a Democrat of New Bedford and the cochair of the caucus, said education was a top priority for the group this year. The caucus successfully pushed for the inclusion of elements of the Patrick administration’s Gateway Cities education initiative, announced last year, in the fiscal 2013 state budget. As part of that initiative, the state plans to spend $3 million on English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs in Gateway Cities and $250,000 on financial literacy classes in Gateway City high schools. The state will also direct $500,000 to help Gateway Cities start up career academies, which are designed to introduce high school students to various career options. Advocates say that career academies motivate students to finish high school and boost student achievement.

Gateway City high schools will also be allowed to compete for $40 million in grants this year for laboratory equipment and supplies through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. The grants are part of the center’s ten-year, $1 billion Life Sciences Initiative. “We want to reach diverse communities, said Life Sciences Center spokesman Angus McQuilken.

The Legislature agreed in June to raise the annual cap on the state’s historic rehabilitation tax credit program from $50 million to $60 million. The program, which subsidizes the redevelopment of historic buildings, benefits all of the state’s communities, but it has become a particularly important economic development tool in Gateway Cities. The Urban Land Institute released a study earlier this year that found the tax credits provide a major economic boost in the economically-depressed communities, which have faced unemployment higher than many other muncipalities.

“That’s the first time in the history of the historic tax credits that we were able to raise the cap,” Cabral said.

In June, the Patrick administration also unveiled a new Housing Development Incentive Program, backed by the caucus. The program gives out tax credits to developers who create market-rate housing in Gateway Cities. Market-rate housing is seen as a crucial tool to lure higher-income residents back into the municipalities.

According to Cabral, the caucus meets monthly while the Legislature is in session. With the current session scheduled to conclude at the end of July, the caucus  plans to meet a few times in the fall and will meet shortly after the November election to prepare to file bills for the session that begins in January. Cabral said the caucus will continue to focus on education and economic development issues, as well as transportation and local aid reform.

Sen.Benjamin Downing, a Democrat from Pittsfield and the caucus’s cochair, said the group’s goal in general is to monitor legislation to ensure that there won’t be any negative impact on Gateway Cities, and also to advocate for the needs of those cities. Downing said the caucus’s meetings are focused on developing priorities and planning.

“Broadly we talk about any type of legislation that the caucus has filed as a whole,” Downing said. “We also talk about what’s going on legislatively.”

Downing said the caucus often brings in experts and other outside groups to discuss ways to help Gateway Cities. During this session, for example, the caucus has heard from some experts on the foreclosure crisis, Downing said.

Under a state law enacted in 2009, a city may be designated a Gateway City by the state if it has a population greater than 35,000 but less than 250,000, a median household income and a per capita income below the statewide average, and a rate of educational attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher that is below the state average. Communities that have the designation are eligible for a host of special tax credits and state financial support.

Meet the Author
One of the more significant decisions the caucus has discussed this session has been whether to expand the number of Gateway Cities. Earlier this month, the governor rejected a provision in this year’s state budget that would have expanded the number of Gateway Cities by about 33 percent. The expansion was pushed by legislators and local officials from communities who failed to meet one of the membership thresholds but wanted access to the special funding. The governor said he feared expansion would reduce the effectiveness of Gateway Cities funding by spreading it over a wider group of municipalities.

The caucus appeared to be split on the proposed expansion. “There is not unanimity of opinion in the caucus,” Downing said.