I thought Somerville Voices readers might be interested in my recent newsletter about the state budget. If you’d like to receive future newsletters, you can sign up at www.patjehlen.org
With all the discussion of the budget, it’s easy to get lost in the talk of billions of dollars and forget the real people whose lives are affected by decisions we make.
On Monday evening, I met with families at the Walnut Street Center, a program for people with developmental disabilities. The families could have sent their children to institutions, but instead have cared for them at home for forty years or more, giving them a better life, and saving the state untold millions of dollars. Now they have received notices that the respite care and other family supports that have allowed them to do so will be eliminated; supports that allow their adult children to work and participate in social activities are being reduced . One woman lived at Fernald for 30 years, where her brothers died. She said Walnut Street Center has allowed her to live in the community and have her life back. She said, “Everyone is worth something. E veryone is special and everyone in some way has some form of a disability but we are all in this world together. No one should fall through the cracks. We are all important.”
This week I visited three long-term care facilities. Even before next year’s budget, they are all cutting back on staff. The residents are getting less care, although their families may not realize it yet. The cuts are happening, and they are affecting people, but they aren’t yet visible to the general public.
The needs of those people are in collision with the global economic melt-down. Very few people really believe that eliminating pension abuses or earmarks will solve our budget problem. Both of them are necessary, and the crisis makes it possible. But they’re not enough.
Given the all-too-frequent revelations of outrageous behavior by public officials, it’s even more difficult to successfully advocate for adequate budgets.
But all of us are affected, directly or indirectly, when local aid is cut, when services for people with mental illness or substance abuse are cut, when roads and bridges aren’t safe. We are all connected. We share in the blessings of a civilized society and need to figure out together what we most need and how to pay for it.
Senate President Murray and Gov. Patrick have both stressed that, before any tax increases, there should be serious reforms in transportation, ethics, and pensions. Both the Senate and the House have passed reforms in these areas. We expect the differences to be worked out and completed bills to be on the governor’s desk with the budget by the end of June.
Highlights of the Senate bills include:
- Pension reforms that eliminate egregious abuses and apply to current as well as to future employees; the Senate plans further reform based on a study commission
- A ban on lobbyist contributions to campaigns
- reducing the maximum annual contribution to a political party from $5,000 to $500
- consolidating transportation agencies, including the Turnpike Authority and the MBTA
- aligning MBTA health benefits with those of other state employees
- eliminating the 23-and-out pension for MBTA employees
In the ethics debate, I supported an unsuccessful amendment to ban all gifts to elected officials.
The Senate faced a $5.5 billion gap between projected revenues and the money needed to provide the same services as last year. Because of the global economic crisis, revenues continue to drop. Lower revenue projections when the Senate started its budget meant our budget was based on $1.5 billion less than the governor’s and House budgets.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee budget proposal included $3 billion in spending cuts, $1.5 billion in federal stimulus aid, and $400 million from the state’s rainy day fund. It contained no new revenue sources and revealed the reality of our fiscal situation. It also contained no earmarks, eliminating some that had been included for decades.
If the Ways and Means budget had been adopted without the sales tax increase, we faced devastating cuts.
- 36.3% decrease in local aid, which disproportionately affects communities like Somerville and Medford
- $78M cut for Chapter 70 education aid to cities and towns
- $ 124.9M from the Special Education Circuit Breaker which also helps communities
- Other cuts to communities, including library aid
- Elimination of local assistance for community policing, Youth-at-Risk grants and summer jobs, alternative education, Shannon Grants, Quinn bill, etc.
- 23,000 people with developmental disabilities and their families would have lost their services, including day habilitation; employment; family support and respite; Turning 22; and adult dental care
- Almost 50% cut to Prescription Advantage
- 4900 seniors would not receive home care
- Community first, a plan to provide services for disabled people and seniors in the community, rather than nursing homes, was completely eliminated
- Detox and treatment for substance abuse were cut again
- State workers’ share of insurance premiums would double to 30%, a real pay cut, especially painful for those at the bottom of the income scale
- No increase in pay for people in human services and child care with very low salaries
- Cuts to every agency in state government, including the legislature and the governor’s office
Hundreds of people from our district came to visit, wrote, called or emailed about the budget. Among the most common concerns:
· 358 people signed postcards from Stand for Children asking me to support adequate school funding and a municipal relief package.
· Families visited and wrote, with pictures of their developmentally disabled adult children, whom they’ve cared for at home for decades rather than sending them to Fernald; they can’t continue to do this without family supports, which were cut
· A woman called about her 80 year old mother, who has leukemia. Even with health insurance, her first month’s supply of her life-saving prescription would cost $3700 a month! Prescription Advantage has allowed her to get her medication affordably, but cuts to the program meant she probably couldn’t afford her prescription. The only alternative is an expensive, dangerous and painful marrow transplant — but she’s too old.
· Many others called about
o transportation funding, threatened toll and fare increases and service cuts
o rental vouchers and other homelessness prevention programs
o other disability services
o legal services
o special education circuit breaker (a form of local aid)
o home care and councils on aging
o Public health programs, including AIDS, substance abuse, and family planning among others
o Mass. Cultural Council
o And many others
A balanced approach to the crisis should include all of these. And, while the total amount of revenue is important, the question of how fairly it’s raised is also extremely important.
I did not favor the sales tax increase, but supported it when other alternative revenue sources failed because I did not believe the cuts were acceptable. I also believe that the property tax is an even worse source of revenue and oppose drastic cuts in local aid.
I supported an amendment that would have restored the income tax to 5.95% rather than increase the sales tax. I believe the income tax is fairer (with its exemptions and deductions, it’s more progressive than the sales tax), and when people earn less they pay less. It’s also more sustainable: in the past few years, sales tax revenues have dropped over a billion dollars, largely due to cross-border and internet sales. This alternative was defeated, 11-28.
Another alternative to the sales tax which I preferred was to freeze the corporate tax rate. It seemed unfair to raise taxes on individuals while the corporate tax rate was lowered by .75% this year and another .75% over the next two years, as part of the agreement last year which closed corporate tax loopholes. While it would not be good to break that promise, there were no good choices available. Other promises have already been broken, for example when local aid was cut in the middle of the year and many programs were cut in half in the middle of the year. This alternative was also defeated, 7-32.
I offered an amendment to apply the sales tax to gasoline, but withdrew it in favor of amendments to raise the gas tax by 19 or 11 cents. Any of these proposals would have avoided fare and toll increases and allowed more restorations of human services and local aid. All were defeated.
The Senate did vote for a sales tax increase to 6.25% and apply the sales tax to alcohol. In the vote that raised those taxes, many budget items were restored at least partially.
Passage of the sales tax increase allowed restorations:
- $275 million to transportation with the promise of no toll or fare increases
- $35 million in restored local aid, plus funds for special education, Quinn Bill reimbursement (20% funding)
- Partial restoration of prescription advantage and home care
- Restoration of funds for Councils on Aging
- Restoration of Shannon anti-gang grants (to levels after mid-year FY 09 cuts)
- Partial restoration for programs to prevent homelessness
- Restoration of MassHealth dental benefits and day habilitation
- Partial restoration of the Mass. Cultural Council, libraries, and many other programs
Mass Budget and Policy Center has a more complete list and analysis.
Retail alcohol sales have been exempt from sales tax. The Senate voted to remove that exemption, generating approximately $80 million. That money will be used to restore safety-net services, including substance abuse programs, community health centers, developmental disabilities services, domestic and youth violence prevention, and early intervention programs.
With local aid being cut by 30%, I and other members urged that the Senate include in its budget a portion of the municipal relief package being drafted by a joint committee under the leadership of Rep. Donato and Sen. Stan Rosenberg. The Senate did include a package that allows cities and towns to raise additional revenue locally to maintain essential services provided by schools, police and fire departments. The plan allows municipalities to adopt a local option meals tax of 2 percent and also a 2 percent lodging tax that combined could generate nearly $200 million for cities and towns. Massachusetts cities and towns have fewer options to raise revenue locally than in almost any other state in the country.
The municipal package eliminates the property tax exemption on poles and wires located on public property and public rights-of-way that could generate another $26 million locally.
In addition to the revenue options, the municipal relief plan includes reforms that require cities and towns to join the state’s Group Insurance Commission or hold costs to a comparable rate.
If you’d like a chart of the local aid changes, please e-mail me at email@example.com so your request won’t get lost in the hundreds of emails I get a day.
A conference committee of two Democrats and one Republican each from the House and Senate will resolve the differences between the House and Senate budgets. Unfortunately, because the Senate budget is based on more recent and realistic revenue figures, the final numbers will generally be close to the lower of the two. We can only hope that revenue estimates don’t continue to fall, causing further cuts.
Then the governor will decide whether to veto portions of the budget. If he’s not satisfied with the legislature’s bills on transportation, ethics, and pensions, he may veto the revenue, and therefore have to cut almost a billion dollars in spending. It’s not certain whether the House would override such a veto. I hope that we can reach a conclusion that doesn’t mean further sudden and devastating cuts to human services and local aid.
But the state’s real structural deficit will continue. The one-time “solutions” of federal money and rainy day account draw-downs are limited. We need a long-term, serious discussion of what we value as a state and how to preserve or promote it.
©2009 The Committee to Elect Pat Jehlen, 67 Dane St, Somerville, MA 02143.