By Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Massachusetts cities and towns would be guaranteed a $125 million increase across the state's two biggest local aid accounts under a resolution announced Wednesday by top House and Senate Democrats.
The increases in Chapter 70 education aid and unrestricted local aid are called for in a proposal outlined by the chairmen of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees, Rep. Brian Dempsey and Sen. Stephen Brewer.
Democratic legislative leaders say the agreement will give municipal officials crafting local budgets this spring some level of certainty about expected state aid levels, which supplement property tax revenues, as lawmakers plan to work into the summer to finalize the state's budget.
The increases, if approved in state budget bills this spring and signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick, would mark the third consecutive year of increases in the two major local aid accounts, the first three-year run of local aid increases since the Great Recession, according to the chairmen.
The House budget committee plans to release its version of Gov. Deval Patrick's $36.4 billion fiscal 2015 budget next month, with debate on it planned for the last week in April. After helping to raise taxes last year to support transportation system investments, House Speaker Robert DeLeo has ruled out tax hikes in this year's budget.
Under the agreement, the Chapter 70 program would receive $4.4 billion, its largest appropriation ever, and a $99 million increase over the current state budget. Every school district will receive a state aid increase of at least $25 per pupil. Unrestricted local aid under the joint resolution would increase by $25 million to $946 million.
In his budget, filed in January, Patrick proposed a $100 million increase in Chapter 70 funding and no increase in unrestricted local aid.
"Local aid is an important component of municipal budgets, and we always work to maintain as much stability and predictability as possible for our cities and towns," Dempsey said in a statement. "This year we are able to provide not only increased funding but this joint resolution, which allows municipal governments to have a clearer picture of the fiscal landscape as they proceed to craft their local budgets."
At a budget hearing in Northampton last month, Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith suggested a $45.1 million increase in unrestricted local aid, noting Lottery receipts were exceeding estimates. Beckwith said the MMA also supports a $143 million increase in Chapter 70 funds.
Under a resolution filed last week by Republican House Minority Leader Brad Jones, funding for major categories of local aid would increase, with Chapter 70 school aid rising by $113 million and unrestricted local aid increasing by $75 million.