Collins’s budget priorities center on UMass, DCR projects

Sen. Nick Collins

The Massachusetts State Senate is assembling its annual budget this week, considering more than 1,110 amendments to the $42.7 billion bill that made it through the upper chamber this month. Among the local amendments on the table are some that are intended to boost transit service, bolster Community Preservation Act funds and open spaces, and wrangle with the University of Massachusetts over its budget.

Lawmakers are not yet proposing any major new revenue sources; they plan to tackle revenue or potential tax hikes in a separate discussion later this year.

State Sen. Nick Collins, whose First Suffolk district stretches from South Boston through Dorchester and Mattapan, filed amendments that would push for studying electrification of the Fairmount and Providence commuter rail lines and advance a two-year pilot program to bring the Fairmount up to rapid transit service.

The University of Massachusetts is the subject of several targeted items, including a tuition freeze for the upcoming school year. Lawmakers appear comfortable that the additional $10 million dedicated to the UMass system over last year’s appropriation should compensate for the expected $5.5 million of lost revenue in tuition and fees, though university officials say it is not enough to cover fixed costs.

Collins said the math that UMass is using, including the hypothetical cost of depreciation and projected deficits, does not seem terribly convincing. “Their numbers are all over the place,” he said.

On the home front, UMass Boston targeted 17 academic centers for cuts in 2018 as part of an attempt to lower the school’s deficit. A March 2018 memo said that austerity measures had significantly reduced the campus’s $30 million budget gap, but administrators determined that 17 of the 30 centers and institutes at the university were not self-sufficient in fiscal year 2017. They had a combined deficit of $5 million, the university said, and would have their funding cut.

Collins and state Sen. Mark Montigny of New Bedford introduced an amendment that would alter language to protect the centers. Last year’s budget included requirements “that funding for each center and institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston shall be provided at an amount not less than in fiscal year 2018,” but would allow the university to submit a report detailing the reasons for any cuts “as a result of extraordinary or unforeseen circumstances” at least 120 days before the cuts or closures would take effect.

The university and Collins disagree on whether the report met the statutory requirements — UMass Boston said it did, Collins’ office said it was filed too late — but the new budget amendment strikes the language allowing a report and simply states that the centers must be fully funded. With respect to that issue, state Rep. Tackey Chan, of Quincy, proposed an amendment that would dedicate a full $5 million to UMass Boston for the centers.

The former Bayside Expo Center site sale could bring in up to $235 million for the campus, Collins said. The senator also suggested that rather than use that money to finish paying for the costly garage fix on campus when other state investments dedicated specifically for the garage begin to make a dent, the school should start to pay down its debt and save millions that could be dedicated in part to the public centers.

Related: Collins bill would force removal of defunct Bayside Expo sign on Columbia Point

“If the community is going to be supporting a process that’s going to get UMass $235 million of investment in Dorchester, they [UMass] should be using that money to make sure there’s going to be community benefits associated with the Bayside project, and use it to drive down their debt so community programming and values are represented at the centers,” Collins said.

UMass Boston said that debt payment plan would not be an acceptable use of the Bayside funds.

“Proceeds from the lease of the Bayside property can only be applied to capital projects approved in advance by the UMass Board of Trustees,” a spokesperson said. Other Collins amendments target local programs, including $250,000 for a grant program to St. Mary’s Center in Dorchester, $100,000 for Scholar Athletes, $100,000 for the Cape Verdean Association of Boston, $20,000 for the All Dorchester Sports League, $50,000 for a matching grant program to the Urban Farming Institute in Mattapan, and $135,000 for a gang-to-college pilot program.

Many of these bills have counterparts in the House budget, put forth by local Representatives Dan Hunt, Dan Cullinane, and Liz Miranda.

Collins filed an amendment regarding the Department of Conservation and Recreation that mirrored a House amendment championed by Representatives Hunt and Cullinane that would prevent the department from retaining revenue generated through youth sports permit fees.

A dust-up this year over the department’s streamlined permit collection process led to panic at local sports groups suddenly facing hiked fees for state-run parks and rinks that would effectively leave non-profit youth groups unable to afford to use the facilities.

The Community Preservation Act, passed in 2016, leverages a one percent property tax surcharge to raise funds dedicated to historic preservation, affordable housing, and open space. The CPA was not included in this year’s Senate budget, but left to the amendment process.

Two dozen senators —including Collins— are co-sponsoring a budget item that would increase land recording fees to raise the level of state matching funds for the CPA. After Boston entered the CPA pool, the already declining state matching funds took a dive, with the city only receiving 17 cents of the dollar in matching funds.

In remarks to the Dorchester Board of Trade last week, Walsh said the budget amendments, which would take effect in December if approved, could bring the city’s match to closer to 40 percent. “I feel good about a major increase there,” Walsh said.

In the first rounds of debate, an amendment asking for a study of electrifying the Fairmont and Providence lines was accepted, the UMass amendment rejected, and the CPA match hike approved. Local programs were still on track as of Wednesday morning. Once the Senate finishes with its budget amendments, committees will resolve differences between the House and Senate versions and send a final bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk for review.

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