On Wednesday, December 16, I joined my colleagues in the Legislature's Ways and Means Committees for the state's annual consensus revenue hearing. As this hearing represents the first step in crafting the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, I'd like to take this time to provide a snapshot of where our economy stands now and the factors that our committee will look at as we consider the future.
Experts and economists confirm that Massachusetts continues along its steady path of economic recovery, largely due to the resiliency we built into our economy before and during the recession. At the recession's height, from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2011, Massachusetts, like other states, had to cut billions from its budget. We were able to cut less and rebuild faster than other states, however, thanks to our fiscal management and reserves. As a result, Massachusetts is among only 14 states with an AA+ bond rating as of spring 2014.
One of the simplest ways to understand our past preparedness is to examine the Commonwealth's Stabilization Fund, also called the Rainy Day Fund. Before the recession, the Stabilization Fund balance was $2.12B. To prevent deep cuts to important services in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, withdrawals were made to the Stabilization Fund, leaving it at $670M. Since then, House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey and I have prioritized rebuilding the fund, resulting in a current balance of $1.25B.
For the second year in a row, Massachusetts has reached nearly pre-recession level in new housing units. Simultaneously, the Massachusetts Housing Price Index has reached pre-recession highs. While generally this is regarded as a positive sign of economic recovery, it also points to the high cost of living in the Commonwealth-and why some struggle to attain permanent housing without support.
Massachusetts has an unemployment rate below the national rate-4.6 per cent here versus 5 per cent nationally-and has remained below the national level since before the economic downturn. For those facing unemployment, however, the Commonwealth remains committed to not letting anyone go it alone. In the fiscal year 2016 budget, we appropriated $2M for the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund to train unemployed and low-wage workers, and we created a new $1.2M Training Resources and Internship Networks (TRAIN) grant program, a partnership with community colleges to specifically target the long-term unemployed and provide them with training and internship opportunities and the chance to fill resume gaps. We continue to work to ensure employment opportunities for all skill levels.
Inextricably tied to economic opportunity is the ability to access a quality education. I believe that educational supports must start very early, and continuing education should be available for those who wish or need to change careers as adults. A variety of programs in our fiscal year 2016 budget provided for the educational attainment of all age groups.
We appropriated $12M to reduce the waitlist for childcare services and $18.6M to expand full-day kindergarten programs. Additionally, we sought to expand not-for-credit vocationally-oriented course offerings by including $1.5M for the Community College Workforce Training Incentive Grant Program.
To help children and families get the mental health services they need so children can focus on learning, I was proud to fully fund all Family Resource Centers, including the important oversight and operations work these programs do.
We also appropriated $11.5M for the Youth At-Risk Summer Jobs program to better prepare them for a life beyond the school walls.
Lifting All Families
In my first budget as Chair of Senate Ways and Means, I made a commitment to Lift All Families. Massachusetts has long stood by its commitment to its citizens, resulting in one of the lowest poverty levels in the country. Since 2005, the Massachusetts poverty rate has been three to four percentage points below the national average.
Regardless, the costs of essentials such as housing can be high for many families. In the fiscal year 2016 budget, therefore, we preserved eligibility standards for families seeking Emergency Assistance and funded important support services to divert homeless families and families at risk of homelessness from shelters. We also appropriated $2M for housing and supportive services for unaccompanied homeless youth. As addiction continues to be a scourge with the power to derail individuals and families, we provided $5M in new funding for over 150 post-detox beds.
While I am incredibly proud of what we've accomplished in the past, we must always be looking forward. As we start work on the Senate's fiscal year 2017 budget, I hope to hear from all of you on the values and priorities you wish to have lifted up.