By Bob Katzen
The House 149-7, approved and sent to the Senate a $1 billion-plus information technology bond titled “An Act Financing the General Governmental Infrastructure of the Commonwealth.” The state would borrow the funds to finance the projects in the bill. The original version of the package was filed by Gov. Charlie Baker more than a year ago on April 11, 2019.The current version is the handiwork of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Members filed 189 amendments to the bill and two of those were withdrawn, The reamining 187 were rolled into a single consolidated amendment that was approved.
“This legislation provides authorizations for critical public safety and information technology projects at the state and municipal level,” said Baker in the message he sent along with the original bill. “The projects in the bill will improve the quality, consistency, efficiency and delivery of state services to the residents of Massachusetts, including digital services for healthcare, housing, education, employment assistance, public safety and emergency management, transportation, and energy and the environment.”
Hundreds of provisions in the bill include massive state projects including $165 million for state telecommunications and data-security-related equipment; $140 million for the purchase and implementation of information technology, telecommunications and data-security-related items for various state agencies; $1.25 million for information technology upgrades for the House of Representatives; and $100 million for the vague “infrastructure related to governmental performance and efficiency.”
And then there are hundreds of local projects successfully sought by individual legislators for their districts including $500,000 for New Bedford’s Buttonwood Park Zoological Society’s infrastructure improvements for the animal ambassador and nature connection education center projects; $61,200 to update the town hall conference room’s streaming technology for the local cable services in Stoughton; $15,000 for Medfield for the implementation of an electronic payroll program; and $1 million for Everett for electronic learning devices for all Everett students and virtual professional development, training and remote learning support for their teachers.
“Over the last several months, thousands of public employees have been working from home,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz. “While this has certainly helped us flatten the curve, it has also put tremendous pressure on our information technology infrastructure like the commonwealth has never seen before. We can all share stories from the past couple of months of the difficulties of conducting business in this new environment. These funds will help ensure that employees can continue to work remotely as needed while still providing vital services to our constituents.”
“The House’s redraft of Gov. Baker’s … bond bill (proposed over a year ago) increased state borrowing by almost half a billion more than his initial request, to fund lots of add-ons,” said Chip Ford, Executive Director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. “In this period of crisis—both societal and financial, both personal and governmental, with record high unemployment and historic low revenue collections both anticipated and experienced—this is the wrong time to borrow any more than unavoidable for absolutely essential spending. For once, fiscal austerity needs and ought to be considered in the Legislature.”
One legislator had mixed feelings. “[The bill] contains critical funding for cyber-security and public safety initiatives at all levels of government,” said Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich). “However, I had strong concerns about the levels of additional borrowing proposed in the consolidated amendment and felt that many of the earmarks were not needed. The state is facing a projected revenue shortfall of $6 billion to $8 billion in next year’s budget, which requires us to engage in a careful balancing act of protecting the state’s bond rating from being downgraded while making sure we can still deliver essential programs and services to the residents of the commonwealth.”
“The worst depression in a generation didn’t stop the Massachusetts General Court from borrowing over a billion dollars today,” said Paul Craney, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. “Despite over one million workers on unemployment and countless shuttered small businesses, they found a way to make sure their pet projects were purchased in an election year.”
“Families are having a hard time paying their rent and mortgages,” continued Craney. “Workers are on unemployment. Countless brick and mortar retail shops, restaurants and lodging destinations have been forced to keep their doors shut. Instead of focusing on these worthy concerns, our Statehouse leaders dug up something from last January’s to-do pile and secured their own future during an election year.”
(A “Yes” vote is for the bill. A “No” vote is against it.)
Rep. Christine Barber Yes Rep. Mike Connolly Yes Rep. Denise Provost Yes