One Percent for Nature

by Jack Clarke

Note: This Op Ed is also running in several regional newspapers statewide, including the Gloucester Daily Times.

Last spring on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio, Governor Charlie Baker called the state’s park system a “really big deal” and said there was “no question” that over the past decade “the state’s disinvested in this stuff.” He then reiterated his campaign promise to dedicate 1 percent of the overall state budget to the environment. “We’re going to get there. It’s going to take a few years,” he said. This month he files his third budget, and it is time “to get there.”

There is little question that Massachusetts has a revenue problem, not a spending problem, and the nature of Massachusetts is short-changed because of it.

Of this year’s $40 billion state budget, only 0.6 percent is devoted to environmental programs – programs like the establishment and operation of state forests and parks, along with programs that protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the lands we live, work and play on.

Halibut Point State Park in Rockport is one of the approximately 150 state parks in Massachusetts. Photo credit: MassDCR

Spending on the environment needs to be increased to no less than 1 percent of the overall state budget, especially as the White House and Congress prepare to cut spending on America’s environmental well-being.

The last time we spent 1 percent on nature was in 2009. And even though he promised to achieve that 1 percent, last year Gov. Baker actually cut environmental spending by 7 percent compared to the previous year.

Budget cuts are made for two reasons:

First, in preparing the budget and figuring out how much they will have to spend, the Legislature makes overly optimistic projections on what will be available through tax revenues throughout the year. When the money fails to come in, shortfalls arise with environmental line-items often most vulnerable.

Second, once they imagine how much money will be available, the Legislature drafts a budget based on its revenue projections and then employs gimmicks to patch it together. Lawmakers count things such as funds set aside for rainy day emergencies, delaying on-time payment of bills, selling of state property, and state pensions and retiree health care funds.

The Legislature then submits to the governor a so-called balanced budget with a built-in structural deficit. The dance continues with the governor then vetoing certain sections of the Legislature’s budget; the Legislature then overrides those vetoes, and the governor once again cuts budget items for his agencies to reflect a shortfall in revenue income.

The second reason environmental and other basic programs are underfunded is because of a lack of actual revenue.

Revenues are not keeping up with costs. We are not over-spending, and we have not had any spending increases. As the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center points out, general expenditures are consistently at 12 cents for every dollar the state collects. And that’s where they have been since the late 1980s.

The state Division of Ecological Restoration (DER) also receives funding from the state budget. Here, DER assisted with a habitat restoration project as  former cranberry bog was transformed in the headwaters of the Eel River. Photo credit: Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration

The problem is tax cuts. Cutting programs is always part of solving state financial problems. But we have to realize that we do not do more with less, as the voters demand; we do less with less. Those cuts started in a big way at the turn of the millennium when, in a ballot initiative, Bay Staters voted to cut the state income tax rate from 5.95 percent to 5 percent. That translates into an annual $2 billion reduction in what the state can spend on the public’s health, safety and well-being.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has shown that the gap between projected revenue and spending to maintain current services is $800 million. So the problem is on the tax side. Before the 2000 initiative, the state was taking in 7 cents on every dollar earned — now it’s around 6 cents.

Last year, the governor’s fiscal year 2017 budget recommended $200 million for environment and recreation programs, a cut of $14 million below the fiscal year 2016 budget. Those cuts have to stop and the environmental budget must be restored.

Ironically, it is one of the smallest parts of the state budget that effects every resident of the commonwealth and is often the first to be cut. It is time for Beacon Hill to get back to devoting 1 percent to the nature of Massachusetts in the upcoming budget.

Jack Clarke is director of public policy and government relations.