State budget writers seek stability as Massachusetts House prepares to release fiscal ’22 budget

House lawmakers are poised to release their budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year on Wednesday and, coming off the heels of one of the most tumultuous budget cycles on record, budget writers say they are trying to inject an air of predictability into this year’s process.

“I think it was appropriate for us to work out some agreement and important to give some predictability to the municipalities,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said in a recent interview with the Herald.

In a joint statement last week, Michlewitz and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues revealed they had reached a local aid agreement for the fiscal 2022 budget to “provide certainty and predictability for cities and towns.”

Their deal means schools will see funding at “its highest level ever.” The $220 million boost in funding — above and beyond the $197.7 million bump Gov. Charlie Baker included in his $45.6 billion budget proposal — would fund one-sixth of the Student Opportunity Act, setting the stage for the rest of the funding to be dispersed over the following five years.

The landmark education bill inked in 2019 was intended to pump $1.5 billion into K-12 schools over seven years, but Michlewitz said lawmakers are “playing catchup” after implementation was delayed this year due to the pandemic. Baker’s budget proposed starting the seven-year clock this year.

House and Senate budgets will earmark another $40 million to help stabilize school districts that have seen pandemic-related enrollment changes.

Lawmakers also said they will match Baker’s proposal to fund $1.16 billion in unrestricted aid to municipalities — a $39.5 million increase over the current year.

“This is an important year for us to get back on track with student funding and the implementation of the Student Opportunity Act,” Michlewitz said.

Such agreements are “not common but not uncommon” according to Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation Executive Vice President Doug Howgate. Lawmakers have struck similar deals at least a handful of times over the past two decades, he noted.

Howgate said the “multibillion-dollar question” still lingering is how the House and Senate budgets might make use of the $4.5 billion in unrestricted aid heading to Massachusetts from President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

With the Biden administration yet to issue guidance, Michlewitz said his budget won’t be relying on it.

“The fact that the U.S. Treasury is not going to give us full guidelines on how to spend that money until early- to mid-May really restricts our ability to use it,” Michlewitz said. “It doesn’t make sound fiscal sense to base our fiscal ’22 budget off of these federal dollars.”

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