Running the Campus

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

Budget, Community Colleges, Higher Education, Lane Glenn, Politics, Running the Campus

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

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 mid-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 this month is usually a pretty important one 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 particularly important 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 ten 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, in addition to increases to our campus base budgets, included MassReconnect, $20 million in funding to provide free certificates and associate degrees to adults 25 years and older who have not yet completed college; $18 million for the SUCCESS (Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services) initiative; and $27 million to support expanding access to Early College programs (opportunities for high school students to earn college credits).

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 provide undocumented students with access to in-state tuition rates and state financial aid.

For its part, thanks to an anticipated $1 billion in new revenue from the Fair Share Amendment, the Department of Higher Education called for $500 million in new funding, including a big boost for student financial aid, as well as increased spending for student success support services and campus operations.

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.

However, when a Governor is new, like Governor Healey was this year, she has a little extra time: five more weeks.  

And so it was that on March 1, a little over three months ago, Governor Healey released her “House 1” budgetfor fiscal year 2024, a $55.5 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, like creating a new “Education and Transportation Fund” with the revenue from the Fair Share Amendment, adding a new “Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities” with its own Cabinet Secretary, and, thankfully, community college priorities like the SUCCESS Fund and the MassReconnect initiative for adult students 25 years and older to attend community college for free.

Once complete, the governor’s “House 1” 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 2024 budget on April 12.  For the most part, at least for higher education funding, it agreed with the governor’s proposals.  It included MassReconnect and the SUCCESS Fund (though at $14 million rather than $18 million), added more money for Early College programs, and created a special “High Demand Scholarship” line item.

The House’s budget also included $23,767,647 for NECC’s annual state appropriation for operating expenses (a little more than a third of the $68,724,161 approved by the college’s Board of Trustees for our total FY24 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 make MassReconnect students eligible for SUCCESS services (it passed) and add $4 million to the House’s proposed SUCCESS budget (it did not pass).

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 released its version of the fiscal year 2024 budget on May 9.  For the most part, the Senate budget also agreed with the governor’s proposals and the bill presented by the House of Representatives, with a few exceptions for higher education:

For several weeks leading up to the release of their budget, Senate President Karen Spilka had been publicly saying that the Governor’s proposal for free community college for adults 25 years and older did not go far enough, and that universal “free community college for all” is what the state should provide.

Based on some feedback we provided the Senate President and her leadership team, suggesting that we would need time and resources to plan such a significant expansion of financial aid and enrollment, their budget instead included the $20 million for MassReconnect, along with extra resources for our Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges to analyze and develop “comprehensive free community college guidelines” by next year.

The Senate’s budget also included some special “outside language” that would provide Tuition Equity (in-state tuition rates and access to state financial aid) for undocumented students.  

As State Senator Pavel Payano and I wrote in an article for Commonwealth Magazine a few months ago, nearly half the states in the country have already passed such legislation, and with the increased flow of population and talent out of the state and increased workforce demands, Massachusetts needs to pass a similar law to support our economy and remain competitive.

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 11:  The Conference Committee is meeting 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.

As an example, the Senate included the Tuition Equity “outside language” extending in-state tuition to undocumented students in its budget, and the governor has indicated she will approve it, but it was not in the House’s budget, so must be agreed upon by the Conference Committee.

To urge them to adopt this important legislation, the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges, along with representatives from the state universities, the University of Massachusetts, and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts partnered with the Presidents’ Alliance for Immigration and Higher Education and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition to arrange Tuition Equity Education Day at the State House last Tuesday.

College presidents, campus leaders and, most importantly, students, joined our colleagues from the Presidents’ Alliance and MIRA Coalition at the State House to visit members of the legislature, explain the importance of Tuition Equity for undocumented students, and urge them to support the legislation in the final budget sent to the Governor.

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 (the last six budgets have all been completed after the deadline), and is often one of the last states in the nation 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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