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Mass. Lawmakers Anticipate Budget Cuts, Push For New Taxes

By Martha Bebinger (WBUR)

On Beacon Hill, a week before House leaders release a state budget many are calling draconian, there's a renewed push to stave off budget cuts with new taxes.

Several hundred people, many wearing neon "Support New Revenue" badges, packed a Revenue Committee hearing at the State House on Tuesday.

They urged lawmakers to approve narrow and broad tax increases. But, as WBUR's Martha Bebinger reports, many lawmakers are wary.

The Patrick administration turned out in force to lobby for a package of new tax revenue estimated to generate almost $ 600 million.

One proposal would end the sales tax exemption on junk food and alcohol. Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby says raising the cost of junk food may help lower childhood obesity rates, and adding the five-percent sales tax to the price of alcohol would curb underage drinking.

JUDYANN BIGBY: Studies also show that increasing the total price of alcohol decreases drinking and driving among all age groups as well as the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, violence and traffic fatalities.

Close to 20 mayors, town managers and selectmen stepped to the podium, pleading with the legislature to let cities and towns raise local hotel and meals taxes.

About half way through a litany of municipal cuts for schools, police, firefighters, libraries and town sports, Franklin's town administrator, Jeffrey Nutting, got right to the point.

JEFFREY NUTTING: I know you guys get it. You've heard it from all of us. We need your help, we need it now. It's not getting any better, it's just getting worse. We need local option taxes, we need them now, please.

ALLISON BALTER: Good afternoon, My name is Allison Balter and I'm the Metrowest-South organizer with Stand for Children.

A few people, including Balter, argued that a wide variety of tax increases should be on the table to avoid more harmful cutbacks in schools.

BALTER: Whether it's the governor's statewide penny increase on hotel and restaurant taxes, or an increase in the sales tax, or changes to the state income tax; these proposals should receive your careful and favorable consideration. Our children simply can't wait for the economy to turn around.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he isn't ruling out anything except an income tax increase, but he says there's little appetite among members for a vote on any new taxes right now.

Rep. Paul Kujawski, a Democrat from Webster, is taking a hard line against new taxes because he says his constituents are already living on the edge.

PAUL KUJAWSKI: I had a family call me the other day, they said they can't afford to pay for heat, put gas in the car and pay college tuition. They have a mortgage on top of that. He said, 'Please don't charge me any more, I am strapped. I don't know what I'm going to do.'

But Kujawski wonders what will happen when his constituents realize how they will be affected by "billions" of dollars in state budget cuts, which the House is expected to propose next week.

Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer says many people in and outside the State House are in for a surprise.

MICHAEL WIDMER: The scale of the problems facing the state have grown so dramatically, it's not clear to me that regular legislators — never mind the public — understand just how dire the situation is.

Privately, some lawmakers say the House strategy is to propose a budget that doesn't try to avoid pain by using money from reserves or new revenue, and then see if the public storms the State House to demand tax increases.

Widmer isn't commenting on the strategy, but says it's time for an honest, responsible view of the state's fiscal challenges.

WIDMER: If that causes some kind of reaction that would examine tax increases, then that's part of the discussion. But the legislature doesn't do any favors by putting out a budget that pretends it'ss not as bad as it really is.

House Revenue Committee Chair Jay Kaufman expects his colleagues will eventually consider a tax package to restore some state spending.

JAY KAUFMAN: Some of the programmatic cuts that would have to be made are just unconscionable and are going to result in lost lives and devastating effects on many constituencies, including the most vulnerable among us.

In the Senate, the focus is on trying to rebuild public trust with reform bills, but several committee chairs say they expect members will eventually approve some tax increases.

This program aired on April 8, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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