More than most cities and towns, the city of Somerville and its public schools rely very heavily on state aid. In fact, this year, state aid makes up more than half (58 percent) of the Somerville schools’ budget. This much-needed money would be cut drastically if Question 1 passes, eliminating the state income tax. According to one estimate by groups including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, our schools could lose as much as 90 percent of its aid if Question 1 passes, and our city could lose 65 percent.
The last time Somerville received a cut in state aid, in 2002-2003, the cut to the school budget was nowhere near this huge: it was about 20 percent, not 90 percent, and yet a large number of teachers and other staff were cut (including all reading specialists); class sizes were increased dramatically, with two classes often collapsed into one; programs such as the world languages offered in grades 7 and 8 were eliminated (and have not been restored); and the Powderhouse Community School was closed permanently. The school system has since run on a very lean budget. Any loss of state aid, even much less than 90 percent, would devastate our schools, which would need to turn to the city for more revenue. (Since the last budget crisis, the schools have already fully explored and taken advantage of grant money, and even this money might be at risk, given the worsening economy.) Yet the city itself would be losing its local aid, and would need to make drastic cuts to its own services.
Many voters, angry at the nation’s $700 billion bailout of Wall Street and at our state’s politicians, want to “send a message” by voting to end the state income tax. Many, feeling pinched financially, are also hoping to pocket what Carla Howell, the Libertarian who runs the Committee for Small Government, falsely promises would be $3,700 to every taxpayer (a claim that is true only if you earn enough money to pay that much in state taxes).
Many assume that the state budget is filled with waste, and that giving the state less money in tax revenue would force it to eliminate that waste. But the state budget contains many programs that are untouchable for cuts (pensions, debt service, certain Medicaid programs, etc.), and so the state would need to cut between 60% and 70% of all remaining programs, including Chapter 70 and local aid, which our city and our schools rely on.
Believe me, my family could use some extra money, although we pay nowhere near $3,700 in state income tax. (I guess if we paid that much in income tax, we’d have all the extra income we need!) But my husband and I feel it’s more important to have good schools, enough firefighters and fire stations, enough police officers, and social services for our elderly and poorer neighbors, not to mention that we’d like to have our streets plowed after every snowstorm, the potholes filled, the broken city tree branches removed, our garbage and recycling picked up for free, free public libraries, and the many other services our city provides. The only way Somerville could maintain these services would be through a major increase in our property taxes and the charging of fees on services such as trash pick-up that are currently free. The passage of Question 1 would take away from us far more than it would give.
Printed in Somerville Journal, Oct. 16, 2008