SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2020
Last week, the House of Representatives held a pair of marathon sessions to consider the Fiscal Year 2021 state budget just as the MBTA's Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB) held a meeting to discuss transit service cuts, part of a program they are unironically calling "Forging Ahead." I participated in the FMCB meeting and voiced my strong opposition to these cuts, and during the House budget debate, I offered a series of amendments that would raise new, progressive revenue, stop these MBTA cuts, and guarantee housing stability for the duration of the pandemic and into the recovery.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 emergency continues to worsen as cases spike and Governor Baker announces the return of field hospitals to accommodate the surge of new patients. The Governor has been determined to continue moving forward with "the reopening" despite warnings from public health experts who say we are on a collision course with further disaster, as the virus is currently spreading in an accelerated fashion in our community and across the Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, things appear likely to get worse before they get better — but at least there's now some light at the end of the tunnel, as two Cambridge-based companies, Moderna and Pfizer, each have vaccines that are showing signs of being strongly effective. That said, the coming week will be critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Canada saw a big spike in cases following their Thanksgiving holiday last month, and that's why the CDC is now pleading with Americans to avoid holiday travel.
More detail on these topics is provided below...
FY21 HOUSE BUDGET DEBATE
Last week, the House adopted a $46 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2021. Normally, we take up the budget in April, but due to the COVID-19 emergency the full budget process was postponed and the state has been operating with temporary budgets since the start of the fiscal year on July 1.
On the one hand, this budget manages to provide level funding in many areas while making "targeted investments" in housing supports and other social services. It does this by drawing on the state's rainy day fund, by utilizing federal funds that were previously allocated, and by making some one-time accounting moves (such as accelerating sales tax payments). To be sure, House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz and his staff deserve appreciation for crafting a budget that manages to keep the state running during this time of public health emergency, economic hardship, and federal impasse.
That said, there are several glaring issues that are impossible to ignore. Right now the MBTA is planning a series of devastating service cuts. Educators and school committee members are telling us the state is lagging on the commitments we made for equitable school funding as part of last year's Student Opportunity Act. And there are reports of one million Massachusetts residents facing hunger on a daily basis.
On top of all this, Governor Baker has fired up "the eviction machine," and many workers do not have access to enough paid sick time to get through a typical quarantine period. The unfortunate truth is too many people were falling through the cracks of our fractured social safety net before COVID struck, and in this moment of extraordinary need, there is still a big disconnect between the response from leaders on both the federal- and state-levels and the challenges our most vulnerable residents are facing.
Over the course of some 26 hours' worth of conference calls and Zoom meetings for the House's "remote formal" budget sessions, there were just two contested roll call votes — one had to do with my proposal to raise new, progressive revenue, and the other was for the "ROE Act" amendment to significantly expand abortion access.
MY BUDGET AMENDMENT TO RAISE PROGRESSIVE REVENUE
In order to provide us with the means to stop these MBTA cuts, to live up to the commitments we recently made for equitable school funding, and to provide our most vulnerable residents and small businesses with the resources they need to survive the pandemic, I introduced a budget amendment to raise the tax rate on "unearned investment income" from 5% to 9%. By making this change, we could raise approximately $1.7 billion in new, progressive revenue on an annual basis.
By "unearned investment income," we mean long term capital gains, dividends, and interest income. This sort of income overwhelmingly goes to the wealthiest households in our Commonwealth. My Amendment also included significant new tax exemptions for seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes. According to a recent analysis by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center ("MassBudget"), the new exemptions included in this proposal would ensure that this effort to raise new revenue would not result in any meaningful tax increase for most low- and moderate-income seniors and disabled persons – and in fact, this proposal would deliver a tax reduction to many such taxpayers.
I started working on this proposal at the start of the session, back in January 2019. At that time, MassBudget was calling for this change, but few others were. I filed legislation early this session to raise this and other tax rates that typically apply to wealthy individuals and large corporations, and I published an extensive blog post outlining the brief history of twenty years' worth of austerity in Massachusetts. Since then, I've continually worked to advance this concept. I filed it as an amendment to the FY20 budget in April of 2019, but at that time we didn't have a broad enough coalition, and we needed further analysis of how this proposal might impact seniors and people with disabilities who live on fixed incomes, so I withdrew my amendment last year and continued organizing.
Over the past year, I worked closely with advocates from the Massachusetts Teachers Association to build support for new, progressive revenue. In turn, some 157 member organizations of the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition signed on in support of this and related concepts, and the House Progressive Caucus listed "unearned income" first among our proposals for new revenue to cover any gaps in this year's budget. Most recently, a majority of both Cambridge and Somerville School Committee Members signed a letter that called for raising taxes on investment income.
Because unearned investment income flows overwhelmingly to wealthy, white households, raising additional revenue from an increased tax on this kind of income would support economic and racial justice. Taxing unearned income at 9 percent would only meaningfully impact the effective tax rate for the wealthiest 1% of households in Massachusetts, according to MassBudget. These households all have incomes above $776,000 a year, and as a group, they average over $3 million a year in income. Under this proposal, these highest-income households would see an increase in their effective tax rate of just 1.3%. And even with this increase, the effective tax rate on these highest-income households would still be well below the effective rates paid by other Massachusetts households.
Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected on a roll call vote, with 30 yeas and 127 nays. Those who voted against it highlighted the fact that the House already passed a comprehensive revenue package earlier this year that the Senate has so far refused to take up. Nevertheless, many activists expressed outrage that the House could shoot down this proposal to advance the cause of Tax Justice. For my part, I know many of the 127 who voted against it are still very much willing to support new, progressive revenue under the right circumstances. So our collective job right now is to continue having conversations with each other — asking legislators questions like "Under what conditions would you vote in support of new progressive revenue and what kind of proposals would you support?"
Notably, the FY22 budget process actually gets underway next month with the "consensus revenue" hearing. So while it is disappointing that we didn't take this opportunity to promote economic and racial justice and to invest in our recovery via new progressive revenue in this year's budget, our work on this topic will immediately continue.
THE "ROE ACT" AMENDMENT IS ADOPTED!
The biggest win in this year's budget has to be the adoption of the "ROE Act" amendment to expand access to abortion in Massachusetts. I was proud to be a co-sponsor of the ROE Act this session, and I was proud to co-sponsor this budget amendment. As a representative of Cambridge and Somerville, I consider it my duty to be on the frontlines for the fight for reproductive freedom, a cause that has been made all the more urgent by the Trump/GOP effort to fill the federal bench with anti-choice jurists.
This amendment will improve access to reproductive health care for pregnant people in several ways. It will allow 16 and 17 year olds to make their own decisions about abortion care without having to go before a judge, and it will greatly streamline access for those 15 and under by allowing remote hearings, ensuring that no young person is forced to go to court to seek an abortion ever again. This amendment also enables families to obtain care later in pregnancy in cases of lethal fetal diagnosis, without having to travel to a distant state.
The amendment passed on a roll call vote of 108 yays and 49 nays. Thanks goes to the ROE Act coalition, including NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU of Massachusetts. Thanks as well to Speaker DeLeo for making the commitment to bring this to the floor, and to Judiciary Chair Claire Cronin, Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, and Rep. Jay Livingstone for their incredible leadership in getting this done. The ROE Act was among my highest priorities this legislative session, so it's truly an accomplishment to have been able to engross these important protections for access to reproductive healthcare in our state.
This week, the state Senate adopted its own version of the FY21 budget, which largely followed the parameters of the budget we in the House adopted last week. Now, a House-Senate conference committee will be appointed to reconcile differences in the two budgets before we send a final version on to the Governor. It should be noted that the ROE Act amendment passed both chambers with a veto-proof majority, which is important because the Governor has not yet indicated support for the amendment.
MAJOR CUTS PLANNED AT THE MBTA
As noted above, the MBTA has announced plans for major service cuts. I spoke at a virtual hearing of the MBTA's Fiscal Management and Control Board on November 9, and this week I also spoke at a virtual community meeting that focused on the impacts these cuts will have on Cambridge, Somerville, and other nearby municipalities.
It is frankly unbelievable to me that we are having this conversation about cutting services and delaying or abandoning hundreds of millions in capital investments at the MBTA. Proposed elements of the MBTA's "Forging Ahead" program include:
- Reduce frequency of subway service by 20% across all lines, including the Green Line
- Stop all subway service at midnight
- Stop E Line Service at Brigham Circle
- Stop all bus service at midnight
- Reduce frequency on essential bus routes
- Reduce frequency on "non-essential" bus routes by 20%
- Consolidate or restructure approximately 10 bus routes and eliminate approximately 25 bus routes
- Stop all commuter rail service after 9 pm
- Stop all weekend commuter rail service
- Decrease weekday peak commuter rail service and some midday service, eliminating 75 daily trains in total
- Close six commuter rail stations
- Stop all ferry service
- Some RIDE trips will become "premium trips," making them more expensive for people with disabilities and medical emergencies
As you can imagine, I find these proposed changes to be outrageous and unacceptable.
I can appreciate that the drop in MBTA ridership that has occured in wake of the pandemic has brought us to this point — but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic and we've had the nation's worst automobile traffic — so changes such as these do not make any sense, not now, and not in the future.
If MBTA vehicles aren’t very crowded right now — then that’s probably a good thing. Clearly, we need ample or even excess capacity right now to allow for social distancing, and once the vaccines are widely distributed and things get back to the new normal, we can expect to quickly return to the automobile traffic nightmare that we faced right up until the week the pandemic struck.
Another terribly concerning element of this proposal is how it would have the MBTA use capital investment funds to cover hundreds of millions of dollars in operating expenses. We’ve been down this road before in our state. It was a big step forward a few years ago when we finally ended this practice — a practice that unfortunately left us in the position of having an astronomical state-of-good-repair/maintenance backlog. If we go back to this practice now, it will set us even further behind in our goals for sustainability and transit mobility.
Also troubling is the fact that it was reported that the MBTA may decide to push forward with these cuts irregardless of any further support from Washington. "Top transit officials have indicated that even if they were to receive a heap of federal aid, they may still move forward with many of the impending cuts," reports the Boston Globe.
And yet another concern has to do with the fact that once services are cut, it’s not at all easy or straightforward to bring those services back. Laid off workers may move on to other jobs, making it hard to recapture lost talent. Indeed, the MBTA has made it clear many of these cuts could be permanent. That's why I'm taking every opportunity to demand no transit services are permanently cut. Instead, we need to raise new, progressive revenue to help advance affordability for all transit riders. At the same time, we must continue making capital investments to support climate justice and air quality improvements. Public transit doesn't pay for itself, the same way most roads and bridges don't pay for themselves. It takes tax revenue to keep the system running!
REMARKS ON EVICTION PROTECTIONS
Two weeks ago, during debate on a supplemental budget to to close the books of FY20, I delivered remarks to the House in support of expanded eviction protections. At present, state leaders have allowed our strongest-in-the-nation eviction and foreclosure moratorium to expire, and yet we're facing an ongoing housing emergency, we are in the middle of an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases across the state — and despite all that, many of the key components of Governor Baker's so-called "Eviction Diversion Initiative" are not yet operational or are already broken. For the full text of my remarks, please see this post on my State House blog.
COLUMBIA STREET FIRE
On Tuesday morning, a fire ripped through an apartment at 171/173 Columbia Street in Cambridge. Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported thanks to the incredible response of the Cambridge Fire Department. However, a family in our district has now been displaced, and they had to leave all of their possessions behind as they escaped the burning building. More information about this terrible incident is here in the Cambridge Chronicle, and people are invited to contribute to a GoFundMe page to help those affected.
Thank you, as always, for reading this latest update on my work at the (mostly-virtual) State House. Please exercise caution this Thanksgiving and try to avoid any indoor gatherings with people who do not live within your immediate household. The vaccines that could bring this pandemic to an end are finally within our sights — but first we need to make it through this COVID winter.
Yours in service,