Field hearings on the Massachusetts state budget were held Monday at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield.
Legislators and the heads of governmental agencies from around the state gathered in the Connector Room of Berkshire Community College.
“So this is one of eight public hearings for the Ways and Means Committee, both Senate and House, that we have in preparation for the state budget," said State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Democrat representing most of Pittsfield. She co-chaired the hearing.
“So the governor has put out his budget. We call that House 2. We take testimony from all the different departments in the state over these eight hearings, and we learn about what has been going on in this department for the last year or more, what their victories have been and what their challenges have been, and what their budgetary needs are for the coming year,” Farley-Bouvier said.
At the hearings, commissioners and secretaries in Governor Charlie Baker’s administration pitch the Ways and Means committee on the governor’s spending plan before legislators release their own budgets, all of which must be reconciled before the fiscal year begins October 1st. Monday’s meeting focused on agencies under the purview of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, each group’s representative eager to underscore the importance of their work and the importance of their budget to the assembled legislators.
“So we, our focus, is helping veterans and families and caregivers, on the aspect of 365,000 veterans who call Massachusetts home,” said state Secretary of Veterans' Services Francisco Urena.
He's a Marine Corps veteran who served eight years of active duty, and joined the Baker administration in 2015. His department’s line item in the budget is about $98 million. Urena says money goes to the public assistance program, soldiers’ homes, cemeteries, the women veterans network, and veteran empowerment and advocacy programs.
“It’s adequately funded, and it is an aspect of support. When it comes to financial assistance, we work on reimbursing cities and towns on what they expended the previous year. So it’s very accurate for us to account where we’re going to spend the money and see the trends in the aspect of need in those populations. Unlike my peers, who kind of propose a budget based upon what they think is going to be the need, we already know what the need last year was, and we reimburse those communities 75 cents to the dollar. And we made a personal commitment to reimburse 100 percent when it comes to any services related to homelessness and homelessness transition,” Urena said.
Heidi Reed heads the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which she says serves 550,000 residents over the age of 3 in the state. Her budget is about $5.7 million.
“There’s a population here in Massachusetts in terms of people who are deaf or hard of hearing that continues to grow. People live longer, people are coming back from military service. People become deaf or hard or hearing for many different reasons and it’s critical that we make sure that we’re accessible as possible, we use our knowledge, our technology, our skills of our staff, to make our program and services accessible,” Reed said.
Linda Spears is the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.
“We work with 45,000 children on any given day in the commonwealth, all across the state,” Spears said.
She reports her agency’s budget at $988 million, which includes a $155 million increase over the last three years. Spears says that raise in funding led to the hiring of about 600 new employees.
“Those employees allow us to cover the caseload better. We have lower caseload counts, which means we’re spending more with every child and family that we serve. And it means that we’re doing a better job overseeing the decisions,” Spears said.
A common theme throughout the day was collaboration, with agencies keen on expressing their abilities to work with others. Many speakers used the term “adequate,” a way of praising the governor’s budget while not sounding unwilling to receive more investment.
All of these concerns exist in the shadow of national affairs. Hearing co-chair and Pittsfield Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds says $13 billion of the state’s funding comes from the federal government.
“Well, in the course of the past year, we’ve seen different discussions for example on health care, and that has major implications on any adjustments that were discussed would have an impact here," Hinds said. "We have seen various programs that the president has signaled he’d want to change, and we’re keeping an eye on that.”