Running the Campus

NECC President Lane Glenn shares stories and perspectives on leadership, higher education, and going the extra mile

Budget, Collaboration, Community Colleges, Higher Education, Lane Glenn, Northern Essex Community College, Politics, Public Policy, Running the Campus

I’m Just a Bill (2024 Edition)

As a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons back in the 1970’s, I used to love singing along to episodes of Schoolhouse Rock, and one of my favorites was “I’m Just a Bill,” a bouncy, bluesy three-minute explanation of how ideas become laws in America.

Those catchy little ditties were a combination of grooviness and wonkiness, and somehow made learning about civics, mathematics, language, and physics seem both simple and cool.

Well, it’s early June in Massachusetts, the time of year when colleges like NECC are in the home stretch of advocating for the funding and legislation they want in next year’s state budget, a process which can seem bewilderingly byzantine to the casual observer.  

So, with apologies to the brilliant creators of this savvy seminal series from my youth, here is my, admittedly more detailed, Schoolhouse Rock-like explanation of the annual budget process for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:

“It’s the Budget” (Sung to the tune of “I’m Just a Bill”)

It’s the budget

Yes, the state’s big budget

And it’s how we know how much we will get

Well, it’s a long, long journey

From the fall to the spring

While we lobby and debate

So it will have everything

That we need for our students all year

At least we hope and pray that they met

Our requests in the state’s big budget

Here in Massachusetts, community colleges like NECC rely on the state for a portion of our annual budget, as well as funding for special initiatives, and of course for laws that impact how we operate and sometimes how important changes are made.

The state’s “fiscal year” (the 365 days in which it spends its money) runs from July 1 – June 30, so June is usually a pretty important month, as the legislature and governor work out whatever differences they may have and (hopefully) finalize a new budget in time for the next fiscal year to begin.  

While June may be a critical time of year for this process, in one way or another, it’s almost always “budget season” in Massachusetts, and it usually looks something like this:

September – December

Well, it’s a long, long journey

From the fall to the spring

Hundreds of state agencies, from the Architectural Access Board to the Water Resources Commission (here is the complete A-Z State Organization Index, an alphabetical list of government organizations, including every commission, department, and bureau in the Commonwealth) submit their spending plans for the next fiscal year to one of eleven state Executive Offices.

There are fifteen community colleges in the Bay State, and we work together through our Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges to develop a list of budget and legislative priorities, which we share directly with the governor’s office and legislature, and with the state’s Department of Higher Education, which submits its proposed budget to the Executive Office of Education.

This year, some of the priorities for the community colleges that we shared included support for the recommendations in a “Planning and Delivery of Free Community College in Massachusetts” report provided to the legislature at their request, increases to our campus base budgets, $24M for the second year of MassReconnect, the successful program that provides free certificates and associate degrees to adults 25 years and older who have not yet completed college; $18M for the SUCCESS (Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services) initiative; and $12M for the Workforce Education and Training Fund, which has been supporting high-demand workforce training programs in fields like healthcare, education, and information technology.

In addition to allocating money to state agencies, the annual budget also regularly includes “outside sections,” which are ways to pass policy proposals or laws as part of the overall budget package.

As an example, this year the community colleges are supporting an “outside section” in the budget that would require graduating high school students in the state to either complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or to opt out of applying.  As Representative Andy Vargas, uAspire Policy Director Femi Stoltz, and I explained in Commonwealth Beacon, each year thousands of graduating high school students in Massachusetts, mostly in low-income communities, leave more than $50M in federal aid behind and don’t consider college because they think they cannot afford it.

For its part, thanks to an additional revenue generated by the Fair Share Amendment, the Department of Higher Education called for additional investment in financial aid for the state’s lowest income students and expansion of support for the Commonwealth Dual Enrollment Program for Early College students.

While all of this is going on, the Administration (i.e., Governor’s office) holds public hearings on the budget proposals from all those state agencies and considers public feedback, while the Budget Bureau forecasts what tax revenue is likely to be for the next year so the Governor can decide how to prioritize where the money gets spent.

January – April

While we lobby and debate

So it will have everything

That we need for our students all year

The state’s Constitution requires that the Governor must propose a budget for the next fiscal year within three weeks of the Legislature convening its new session.  Since the Legislature typically convenes just after the holidays in early January, most years this means the Governor delivers a “State of the State” address and releases a proposed budget, called either “House 1” or “House 2” depending on whether it is the first or second year of the legislative session, by the fourth Wednesday of January.

And so it was that on January 24, a little over four months ago, Governor Healey released her “House 2” budget for fiscal year 2025, a $56.1 billion proposal that laid out the funding for all of those hundreds of state agencies (like community colleges) that depend on it, and for her other spending priorities, which this year include housing affordability, early literacy, climate change technology, transportation infrastructure, and addressing the woeful state of the MBTA.

Governor Healey’s higher ed funding proposals included increases to campus operational budgets and MassReconnect, as well as a $75M infusion into the state’s higher education capital fund to establish a long-term endowment for construction and renovation projects, $14M for the statewide SUCCESS initiative (actually a reduction from the $18M originally available for the program this year), and $3.7M for community college “performance funding.”

Once complete, the governor’s “House 2” budget is delivered to the Ways and Means Committee (a.k.a. the budget committee) for the House of Representatives. 

The House then has a few weeks to develop their own version of the budget (usually agreeing with many of the governor’s ideas while ignoring others), to discuss and debate them, make amendments, and take a vote.

This year, the House of Representatives released its version of the fiscal year 2025 budget on April 10.    In several ways, it agreed with the governor’s proposals, including increases for campus operational budgets, MassReconnect, and SUCCESS; while it also increased the community college “performance funding” to $7.5M, restored $4.75M in funding for the STEM Starter Academy, and created a $14M SUCCESS Fund for the state universities.

The House’s budget also included $26,659,658 for NECC’s annual state appropriation for operating expenses (a little more than a third of the $76,685,220 approved by the college’s Board of Trustees for our total FY25 budget).

Once the House’s initial budget is made public, representatives have a few days to offer amendments, usually based on requests from their constituents and state agencies.  For example, this year we asked for amendments that would add $4M to the House’s proposed SUCCESS budget and restore a $6M line item for the Community College Workforce Education and Training Fund (neither amendment passed).

After the House votes on and passes its budget, the bill is assigned a new number, “engrossed,” and sent to the Ways and Means Committee for the Senate. 

May – August 

At least we hope and pray that they met

Our requests in the state’s big budget

The Senate then has a few weeks to take the governor’s proposed budget priorities, along with the budget bill passed by the House, develop their own budget, hold hearings, offer amendments, debate, and take their own vote.

This year, the Senate approved its version of the fiscal year 2025 budget on May 24.  

This year, there are some major differences between the Senate’s proposed budget for higher education and the budgets recommended by the governor and the House.

While all three mostly agreed on campus operational budgets and Early College support, the Senate budget included MassEducate, a plan to provide free community college to all residents of Massachusetts by combining $24M in funding from MassReconnect and $18M from Nursing scholarships with $75.5M in new funding that will pay for tuition and fees, as well as provide a $1200 stipend for other expenses for the state’s lowest income students.

Additionally, the Senate has proposed $18M for the SUCCESS Fund, $10M for a new “Higher Education Persistence and Basic Needs Program,” and added more than $20M to the MassGrant Plus program to help cover the cost of attending the state’s universities for low-income students.

If approved in the eventual statewide budget, MassEducate will be tremendously helpful for students seeking to pay for their associate degrees and reduce the cost of their bachelor’s degrees.

It does not, however, include several other important recommendations from the “Planning and Delivery of Free Community College in Massachusetts” report that will likely be needed to support the expected increased enrollment at community colleges, such as additional operational funding to hire staff like financial aid counselors, more funding for SUCCESS wraparound services, and increases for faculty and staff salaries, which, as illustrated by a recently released study from Massachusetts Teachers Association, lag significantly behind other states, particularly for community colleges.

Outside language in the Senate’s budget proposal also requires revisiting the rarely used performance funding formula which, theoretically, can take resources away from some institutions and give them to institutions that are performing more effectively.  While in theory this may sound reasonable, in practice, it has been proven ineffective and even damaging to the very students it seeks to serve (largely, low-income, Black and Hispanic students in Gateway cities).

With both the House and Senate budgets voted on and finalized, the next step in the annual budget process is the creation of a “Conference Committee” consisting of three members of the House of Representatives and three members of the Senate who confer and resolve differences between the two budgets to create the “Conference Committee Report.”

And this is where we find ourselves today, June 4:  Once appointed, the Conference Committee will meet over the next few weeks with the goal of delivering its report, the final, un-amendable proposed budget from the legislature, back to the Governor for her consideration.

The next few weeks in this process are the final opportunity for state agencies, like community colleges, and others with an interest in the budget to appeal to their senators and representatives and get their resources or their legislation into the final Conference Committee Report.

When the Governor receives that final Conference Committee Report she will have ten days to review it and either approve it as is (quite rare), veto the entire thing (also rare), or veto particular line items or sections (very common).  She cannot add anything.

Ideally, this will all be accomplished in time for the state to start its new fiscal year on July 1, though Massachusetts has become known for taking its time (it has been more than thirteen years since Massachusetts passed its last on-time budget), and we are often the last state in America to wrap it up—just in time for a short summer vacation before “budget season” starts all over again.

Here at NECC, and at community colleges across the Commonwealth, we’re grateful for the positive attention on our students this year from the governor and the legislature, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed (and our toes tapping) that our biggest priorities make it into that final bill…

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