Governor Releases FY20 Budget Recommendations

As required by the state Constitution, Governor Charlie Baker filed his recommendations for the FY20 budget on January 23. The budget contains $42.7 billion in gross spending, a 1.5% increase over projected FY19 spending, and anticipates a deposit of $297 million into the Stabilization Fund, for a projected balance of $2.8 billion. The FY20 budget assumes a reduction in the income tax rate to 5% on January 1, 2020, which according to the Governor’s budget message will return $88 million to taxpayers during the fiscal year.

In addition to the budget proposal, the Baker-Polito Administration filed legislation to launch a major new climate change adaptation initiative, funded through a modest increase in the deeds excise paid on real estate transactions. This investment will amount to $75 million in FY20, and $137 million on an annualized basis to support the Commonwealth’s communities in upgrading their infrastructure and planning for the impacts of climate change. The measure, which is a similar concept to what UCANE proposed before for the Clean Water Trust, would allow for resiliency spending on water infrastructure, among other priorities.

Of additional note to UCANE members, the Governor’s budget recommended an increase of $5.5 million to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to support and enhance the pipeline safety division’s critical testing, investigations, and oversight responsibilities to ensure that natural gas distribution companies are in compliance with safety regulations. Further, the Governor level-funded the contract assistance line-item for the Clean Water Trust’s use to the previous appropriation of slightly over $63 million. Through a supplemental budget, approved by the legislature and signed by the Governor, this important line item saw a one-time $10 million increase last fiscal year. The decrease for the Clean Water Trust was expected, but since last year’s advocacy was effective, there could be an opportunity to increase funding once again.

The Governor’s budget level-funded the appropriation for the Underground Storage Tank reimbursement program, which was temporarily increased last year by $20 million to reduce the backlog on existing claims, to $8 million. Finally, there were two outside sections that may be of interest to UCANE, including a technical change in the definitions of “supplier diversity programs” now run by MassDOT and a water/school deleading initiative that appears to allow for the use of revolving funds for school deleading programs.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives will take up its proposed FY20 budget in April, while the Senate will consider its version in May. A conference committee of three Representatives and three Senators will then resolve differences in the two proposals by reporting a final version for the Governor’s approval, ideally, before July 1.

New Department of Family and Medical Leave Begins Listening Sessions

The new Massachusetts Department of Family and Medical Leave (DFML) has announced a series of listening sessions to solicit feedback on the proposed regulations governing this new program. Responsible for operating the estimated $800 million paid family and medical leave program, DFML will run the program with funding from a small payroll tax beginning on July 1.
The new law calls for up to 12 weeks of job-protected paid leave to care for a seriously ill or injured family member, to care for a new child, or to meet family needs arising from a family member’s active duty military service. It also authorizes up to 20 weeks of job-protected paid leave to recover from a worker’s own serious illness or injury, or to care for a seriously ill or injured service member.

Benefits will become available on January 1, 2021 for workers seeking time off to bond with a new child, take care of a sick or injured service member or to tend to a serious personal health condition. On July 1, 2021, benefits will be made available for workers to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

The leave benefits are to be funded through employer contributions to a new trust. The contribution rate is 0.63 percent on the first $128,400 of a worker’s annual earnings and employers can require that employees contribute up to 40 percent of their total medical leave contribution and up to 100 percent of their total family leave contribution.
The proposed regulations may be viewed at:

https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2019/01/23/DRAFT%20DFML%20Regulations.pdf. Written comments or testimony may be sent to MassPFML@Mass.gov

New Chairman Appointed to Lead Department of Public Utilities

In an end of January press release from his office, Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Matthew Beaton announced that Matthew Nelson has been appointed Chairman of the Department of Public Utilities. Nelson replaces outgoing Chairman Angela M. O’Connor, who departs following a four-year term.

According to the release, under Chairman O’Connor’s leadership, the Department of Public Utilities addressed important matters including the modernization of the electric grid, the passing of utility federal tax savings back to ratepayers, the compensation of owners of new solar projects, and the strengthening of consumer protections for competitive electric supply sales. Additionally, during Chairman O’Connor’s tenure, the Department implemented one of the most comprehensive ride-for-hire laws in the country in an effort to prioritize public safety and thorough background checks.

Mr. Nelson assumes the role of Chairman having worked for the Department for eight years, most recently as the Director of Electric Power and Regional and Federal Affairs where he played key roles in overseeing investments in grid modernization, general rate case issues, renewable energy development, climate strategies, competitive supply, and management of storm restoration issues. During his time in state service, Mr. Nelson has also played an instrumental role in developing comprehensive energy legislation that requires state utilities to solicit long-term contracts for 1,200 megawatts of hydropower and 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy.

Prior to public service, Mr. Nelson spent four years at Eversource Energy as the Supervisor of Regulatory, Policy, and Planning as part of the MassSave Initiative – a nationally recognized public policy initiative that has succeeded in helping the Commonwealth achieve its environmental goals, as well as reduce costs for Massachusetts ratepayers, and those across New England.

A graduate of Stonehill College, Mr. Nelson holds a Master’s degree in economics from Tufts University.

Baker-Polito Administration Awards Water Management and Conservation Grants

At the end of January, the Baker-Polito Administration awarded five grants totaling $315,901 to help six communities and water suppliers with water conservation, source and demand management, and other water withdrawal planning and mitigation projects across the Commonwealth. The funding will be utilized in the communities of Auburn, Danvers, Norfolk, Plymouth, Westford, and Littleton.

The grants are part of the Water Management Act (WMA) Grant Program, an effort by the EEA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to maintain clean rivers and streams and improve degraded water resources over time. The WMA Grant Program helps water suppliers by providing grants for watershed planning projects, demand management, and minimization and mitigation activities for water withdrawal impacts.

The following grants were awarded:
Auburn Water District: Permanent Interconnection with Worcester – Design and Permitting Phase 2 – $84,400.
Town of Danvers: Drought Management and Minimization Planning – $74,888.
Town of Norfolk: Integrating Water Smart Planning and Practices – $25,000.
Town of Plymouth: Supply Evaluation and Water Conservation – $53,544.
Westford and Littleton: Stonybrook Restoration Project – $78,069.
The WMA Grant Program helps guide water management in the Commonwealth for both the long-term water needs of communities and the protection of the aquatic ecosystems. The program is funded through the Massachusetts Five-Year Capital Plan, and requires a 20 percent match from the communities involved.

Additional details on the WMA grant projects for 2019 can be found at:

https://www.mass.gov/service-details/water-management-act-grant-programs-for-public-water-suppliers

UMass Lowell Center to Assist in Highway Improvements through Federal Grant

University of Massachusetts, Lowell (UMass Lowell) researchers are developing ways to improve the durability and longevity of New England’s roads, bridges, and tunnels as part of a new initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).
Funded by $14 million from the USDOT, the Transportation Infrastructure Durability Center (TIDC) will bring together researchers and students from universities across New England to advance solutions that improve the region’s infrastructure. The center will tackle problems such as the toll New England’s winter weather takes on roadways, bridges, and tunnels. The salt used to de-ice road surfaces further damages foundations and pavements and corrodes steel structures, creating costly problems for motorists, cities and states.

Prof. Tzuyang Yu, Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is leading UMass Lowell’s research team, which includes Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. Susan Faraji, Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Xingwei Wang, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Zhu Mao and Plastics Engineering Professor Ramaswamy Nagarajan. UMass Lowell students participating in the project include Ruben Diaz, a civil engineering major from Dunstable, and Ph.D. candidates Ahmed Al-Zeyadi of Quincy, Cong Du of Dracut and Sanjana Vinayaka of Lowell.

One out of every five miles of highway pavement in the nation is in poor condition and the roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs, according to a 2017 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The researchers hope improvements to the civil infrastructure will result in lower maintenance costs, as well as enhanced safety, fewer traffic delays and accidents, and reduced fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Professor Yu is already researching innovations that could contribute to the success of the new center. Last year, Professor Wu, Professor Wang and UMass Lowell Civil Engineering Professor Pradeep Kurup, along with researchers from Saint-Gobain Corp. in Northborough, were awarded $853,000 in funding by the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) to create textiles integrated with optical fibers and sensors. These next-generation fabrics are to be applied to structures such as pipelines and bridges to detect strain or cracks in their early stages, minimizing repair costs, environmental impacts and disruptions to people’s lives and businesses.

Along with UMass Lowell, partners in the new TIDC include the University of Maine, the University of Connecticut, the University of Vermont, the University of Rhode Island, and Western New England University.