Thursday, January 30, 2014

Can we have our money back? Pretty please?

Similar scenarios to that which is unfolding in the Town of Sandwich, Massachusetts, are happening around the commonwealth. Every town and city is in the same boat.

On January 16, 2014, the select board listened to the Department of Public Works director lay out plans for dealing with the town's deteriorating roadways. Originally pegged at $10 million last fall, the director sharpened his pencil and presented a prioritized project list totaling $6.6 million. In addition to this, the town needs an extra $300,000 annually to keep up with ongoing maintenance and repairs.

While the board contemplates boosting the DPW annual budget by $300,000, Governor Deval Patrick sits atop nearly $400,000 in local aid for road construction and maintenance (referred to as Chapter 90 funds) that was included in this year's budget, which ends on June 30, 2014, but was never distributed to the Town of Sandwich. And the town is not alone.

In fact, the state's budget for Chapter 90 funds was increased from $200 million in fiscal year 2013 to $300 million in 2014. Initially, the governor released $150 million of the $300 million appropriation and was later coaxed into releasing an additional $50 million to match the prior year's distribution. Governor Patrick claimed that distributing the entire appropriation would be fiscally imprudent because of uncertainty about the amount of tax revenues coming into the state's coffers.

That "conservative" approach flies in the face of the facts. First, the governor filed a supplemental budget last August for fiscal year 2013 that put excess revenues totaling $500 million in the "rainy day" fund. Second, the revised revenue estimate for fiscal year 2014 is $400 million above the original estimate upon which the budget was built. That balanced budget, by the way, included $300 million for Chapter 90 funds even at the lower revenue estimate.

With a billion or so of extra cash piling up, there is no reason not to distribute the remaining $100 million in road funding, a 50% increase over last year's budget. For the Town of Sandwich, this amounts to an additional $395,390.

The irritating part of this holdback is that the $100 million increase is already paid for. The taxpayers' money is in the bank. All that is necessary is to release it back to Massachusetts towns and cities. Yet, the Sandwich select board is contemplating asking taxpayers to pay a second time to fund the same repairs and maintenance. How is the governor going to fulfill his 2006 campaign promise to lower property taxes when he puts towns and cities in this predicament?

On January 29, 2014, the House voted to fund Chapter 90 again at the $300 million level for fiscal year 2015 with the hope that the governor will see fit to spend the appropriation as planned. In the meantime, mayors, town managers, city and town councils, and select boards should be calling the governor to ask this simple question: Can we have our money back? Pretty please?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jerry Madden, leading the way on crime reforms

I caught up with Jerry Madden, retired Texas state representative, in Dallas on November 27, 2013 to ask him how Texas became one of the first states to pass sweeping crime and justice reforms in decades.

Texas, with its reputation for locking 'em up and throwing away the key, not to mention its famous Death Row in Huntsville, seemed an unlikely state to embrace such reforms. It all started with marching orders for Madden, the newly appointed chairman of the Committee on Corrections, issued by the Speaker of the House: "Don't build any more prisons, Jerry. They cost too much."

With no particular experience in the court or prison systems, Jerry Madden tapped into his 12 years of legislative experience and his military and engineering background to search for solutions to the ever growing prison population that was costing Texas huge amounts of money and having little or no impact on crime.

I boiled down our hour-and-a-half interview to 22 minutes, capturing Madden's approach to managing Texas' burgeoning inmate population while dropping its crime rate to a 35-year low. Learn from this sage, 70-year-old Texan how he asked the unasked questions and challenged the status quo to start a movement that is spreading across the country.