State Sen. Will Brownsberger and State Rep. Jay Livingstone welcomed around 50 guests for a virtual Town Hall meeting Thursday, June 11, to discuss a wide range of issues, including the looming state budget, the future of the T and proposed police reform.
“State Police reform needs to happen,” said Sen. Brownsberger, who added that despite rallying calls to strip them of funding, the State Police now only accounts for about 1 percent of the Commonwealth’s annual budget. “We shouldn’t take all the money away from police or eliminate police. I don’t think I can get to that place myself.”
Gov. Charlie Baker has filed a bill that besides requiring officers statewide to be certified, would take complaints against individual officers to the state level, and which Sen. Brownsberger said the legislature expects to vote on soon.
The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus is also now working on recommend changes for policing, but Sen. Brownsberger said oversight responsibilities must fall on the officers in charge as well.
“We need committed police leadership to send the message to officers about what kind of policing the community wants,” he said. “We can also make a difference moving the compliant process to the state level.”
As it stands with complaints against officers today, Sen. Brownsberger said a collective bargaining union and management often send in arbitrators who don’t always enforce discipline.
Rep. Livingstone, whose district includes the Cambridgeport neighborhood in Cambridge, said there was a lot of public backlash in response to Cambridge City Council’s recent conversation on increasing funding for that city’s police force, which ultimately “lost momentum” when some of the department’s critics realized a budget cut would mean certain responsibilities they deem necessary would no longer be handled by police there.
“What exactly we want from the police is going to be a very important discussion,” said Rep. Livingstone, who served as Middlesex County’s Assistant District Attorney for four years. “A tremendous difference [between officers] is what kind of training they’ve received, that’s part of the equation, and what kinds of equipment they use is part of the discussion as well.”
In another matter, the state’s projected $43 billion budget for fiscal ‘21 is expected to fall short of that benchmark by between $4 billion and $6 billion, Rep. Livingstone said. And with a budget shortfall of between $2 billion and $7 billion projected for the following fiscal year, the state’s $3.5 billion “rainy day fund,” which is the second biggest in the country, won’t be enough to cover this expected deficit.
“The biggest wildcard now is federal funding because of the HEROES Act” Rep. Livingstone said of the pending stimulus bill that would allocate nearly one-third of its requested $3 trillion to state and local governments to pay “vital workers” first-responders, healthcare workers and teachers now at risk of losing their jobs because of budget cuts. “If municipal and state government is bailed out by the federal government, that’s going to make the biggest difference, but right now it doesn’t look pretty.”
This comes only weeks before the state’s formal legislative cycle for the fiscal year is slated to wrap up July 31, but Sen. Brownsberger remains confident the legislature can accomplish several major goals by then, including establishing an early-voting or vote-by-mail system; passing a proposed $18 billion state transportation bill; and implementing some measure of police reform. “There are a lot of other things that would be great to get done as well,” he said
Sen. Brownsberger said it’s also likely legislative sessions would be extended during a time he described as fraught with “more uncertainty that any other budget cycle in decades.”
“It’s just a legislative vote; it’s something we can do,” he said. “I don’t think there are any major procedural barriers if we want to do it.”
Rep. Livingstone agreed with this prediction, saying: “There’s been a lot of discussion on breaking it up or extending the sessions. When the formal sessions end July 31, there will be a discussion about voting on the budget afterwards. It hasn’t been finalized yet, but that’s my guess as to what will happen.”
Both state officials warily ponder the future of the MBTA.
While the T has lost considerable revenue from a dramatic drop in ridership since the pandemic hit, Sen. Brownsberger said only $700 million comes from fares, while the remainder of its $2 billion annual budget is provided via state sales tax and to a lesser extent from property tax revenue from the Commonwealth’s cities and towns.
Sen. Brownsberger said the T must continue to operate for those who rely on it as their primary mode of transportation, but he said according to a recent survey, more than half of respondents who began working from home because of the public health crisis said they expect to continue doing so even after state restrictions have been eased on their workplaces.
“Frankly I don’t think there’s any way to safely ride the MBTA,” said Sen. Brownsberger, who added despite his affinity for the T, he has only taken one round-trip subway ride since the pandemic struck. “You don’t want to be on a crowded train where you’re pushed up against people, you just don’t.”
Rep. Livingstone said MBTA officials told him after the 2009 recession, it took six years for ridership to return to ’08 levels, and that the current crisis is expected to have a similar long-term effect. Low ridership has its advantages, though, he said, such as allowing the T to implement comprehensive new safety measures, as well as to expedite some repair work.
On the Blue line, the T was able to reduce the projected year-long repair schedule, which included plans for suspending service overnight and on two weekends, to around two weeks by shutting down service on the line completely during that time. Expedited work on the Green C and E lines is set to begin in July and August, respectively
“The Red line will be shut down for some time as well [to allow for repairs],” Rep. Livingstone said.
Andrew Bettinelli, Sen. Brownsberger’s chief of staff, also provided information on helicopters that fly over Back Bay – something that residents of that neighborhood have described as an increasing public nuisance.
Under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, helicopters are mandated to adhere to “navigational highways” that follow the routes of vehicular highways, like Storrow Drive, and rivers, such as the Charles, he said.
The FAA also allows helicopters to fly lower to the ground than airplanes while several landing pads for nearby hospitals are located near Back Bay, which Bettinelli said further “exasperates issues.”