WINCHESTER - Due to the coronavirus, the state has become “heavily reliant on the federal government,” according to State Senator Jason Lewis. Both he and State Representative Michael Day joined the Select Board’s latest meeting this week to discuss issues at the state level.
Lewis said the state has “expanded and strengthened unemployment benefits (with) help from small business loans and grants, (received) emergency funding for public health, extended tax filing deadlines, (allowed) moratoriums on evictions (for both residents and business owners), (offered) liability protection for healthcare workers, canceled the MCAS test, and authorized electronic notification.”
He added, even with all that the government still “has more work to do.”
On the local level, Lewis expressed his strong support for Winchester to be able to hold a remote Town Meeting if necessary. A bill that would allow the town to do so has passed the senate. The bill would also strengthen data collection/reporting of the virus and strengthen the social safety net.
For fall elections, Lewis plugged mail-in ballots and early voting (similar to what Winchester residents did during the spring primary).
The Senator also announced the state expanded emergency paid sick time.
Another local issue, senior property tax exemption, is pending in the House, Lewis noted.
When it comes to the state budget, even though the economy took a major hit, Lewis didn’t forecast any FY20 budget cuts (the current fiscal year ends on June 30). Unfortunately, he said the picture looked “grim” for FY21.
The state started the FY21 budget process in mid-April. Lewis suggested the revenue shortfall could wind up between $4B-$6B less than legislators thought back in January (before the virus hit). He called it “about a 15 percent reduction” over FY20.
He did add how the state’s Rainy Day Fund (similar to the town’s Free Cash) would help. Something else that would help, but has almost no chance of passing the US Senate, is the US Houses $3T stimulus bill. US Senate Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill “dead on arrival.”
Lewis wasn’t sure how all of this would affect local aid and the town’s Ch. 70 money. He said the government is trying to put a consensus revenue number together.
Rep. Day, meanwhile, said he was “proud” to represent Winchester and noted how the town “pulled together.” He asked the town to keep communication lines clear.
He noted how the state has begun to reopen, but stressed “we haven’t contained the virus yet.” He said the governor agreed to lift certain restrictions, and if they work, he’ll lift more. If they don’t work, he’ll close them again. He’s using economic security and caution, Day remarked.
Day added if the state continues in the right direction, it can open up more. This Monday, grooming places, such as barbershops, hair salons and pet groomers, can open.
The representative admitted some concerns about child care, which remains closed through June.
He also mentioned a mask requirement for anyone taking public transportation.
When it comes to the state budget, like Lewis, Day talked about the uncertainty and the potential $6B hole. He said last year’s budget was $42B. He also admitted legislators wouldn’t have the FY21 budget ready in time and may have to use a 1/12th budget (this means spending month by month).
“I recognize this puts a strain on municipalities,” Day acknowledged, adding that one idea, to declare bankruptcy, would be “wildly irresponsible.”
Once the local leaders finished their update, Select Board member Amy Shapiro inquired about testing and whether the state would have a more unified program. Lewis said Massachusetts has been one of the leading states when it comes to testing and tracing, but the state still needs widespread and rapid testing, followed by immediate tracing.
Day added there wouldn’t be any reopening without widespread testing.
Shapiro followed up by asking about data points and noting how more testing means the number of cases rise. Day repeated how testing will drive reopening. Lewis added that hospitalization rate would be a key metric as well.
“We have to manage the surges,” Day exclaimed.
Lewis circled back to Ch. 70, saying it won’t be at the level before the crisis, but “we’ll do the best we can.” He added how he couldn’t give the town any guidance yet without a budget. He did note the state is committed to “updating the school funding formula,” pointing to the recently passed Student Opportunity Act.
In one sign of good faith, Day said both Republicans and Democrats in the statehouse have been “working across party lines remotely” and “we hope to pass more meaningful legislation.”