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Debate about whether to raise state taxes and by how much is gaining momentum quickly as state Senators respond to budget cuts their leaders call draconian.
State funding for 77 programs is gone and budget writers say they had to shave $2.4 billion in total to balance falling tax revenue. While some state Senators say it is time for government to shrink with the economy, many advocacy groups are pushing back — demanding tax hikes to save jobs and programs.
Take Medford, where Mayor Michael McGlynn boasts of state-of-the-art schools; safe, well-cared for neighborhoods and a storied past. But Medford, like many communities in Massachusetts, has made a series of cuts over the last five or six years. It would lose an additional $6 million in state aid under the proposed Senate budget, forcing McGlynn to consolidate departments, eliminate school programs and impose layoffs.
"A couple of weeks ago, I sent a letter to every employee," Mayor McGlynn said. "Urging them, if they could find employment elsewhere, and keep financial stability for their families, they should act immediately, because I can’t guarantee anybody a job."
Statewide, cities and towns would lose more than $800 million if you include not just the main municipal aid and education funds, but also cuts in community policing, regional school transportation and special-education grants.
And that figure doesn’t take into account the impact on communities of eliminating four youth violence prevention and job training programs, cutting mental health and substance abuse funding by roughly 25 percent or the impact of 5,000 families who would lose rental vouchers or space in transitional housing under the Senate budget.
The state’s court system loses $20 million in the Senate’s initial budget.
That, said Peter Agnes, a superior court judge in Worcester and president of the Massachusetts Judges Conference, "would simply make it impossible for the court to move forward without substantial layoffs and court closings, and that would mean the denial of justice to thousands and thousands of people."
People who would get less timely action on restraining orders, family court matters or probation concerns, Agnes says. The state’s landmark health care law, which Senate leaders say is a priority in this budget, still takes a hit.
Twenty-eight thousand legal immigrants who have not completed the residency process would be cut from the Commonwealth Care subsidized insurance program. The Senate says the state can’t afford to insure this group of moderate-income residents because the federal government doesn’t provide matching funds.
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is the director of Health Care for All. She says removing all those immigrants from Commonwealth Care signifies a "giant step backwards" for health reform in Massachusetts.
"They’re legally here, they’re paying taxes, they’re contributing to our state economy," Slemmer said. "We have included them in health reform and want to make sure they have access to their providers."
Hospitals and clinics where these residents may go for free care would be hard pressed to treat them. A fund that subsidizes these facilities in low- to moderate-income areas is zeroed out in the Senate budget.
Hundreds of advocacy groups are mobilizing phone, e-mail, letter writing and online campaigns to try to persuade state Senators to approve a tax increase, and then make sure any new money helps restore funding for their program.
Senate Rebublican leaders do not support any new taxes or fees, and many Democrats are reluctant to support a tax hike. Sen. Steven Baddour says most of his calls are from people who say don’t raise taxes, even if they are losing some state funded service.
"There’s a clear understanding that these are difficult times," Sen. Baddour said. "That cuts are unfortunate, but necessary, and that you can’t raise enough revenue to get out this mess — that by the way we didn’t create. It’s a global problem and everyone’s facing it and state government can’t be immune from it."
Baddour is particularly wary of raising the sales tax, the largest increase getting serious consideration, because he represents Methuen and other northern communities where business owners already have to compete with sales-tax-free New Hampshire.
Baddour, the Senate’s transportation chairman, says sticking to tough cuts this year — including, he expects, fewer trains and buses — will make it easier to weather the next three or four tough budget years.
On the other hand, the Senate’s chief budget writer, Steven Panagiotakos, supports raising the state sales tax in the range of the 1.25 percent approved by the House. The Ways and Means chairman says it would offset some of the pain, but he acknowledges there’s no consensus on what to do in the Senate yet.
"Senators are all over the board, just like the general public," he said. "Some won't vote for any taxes, some will vote for certain ones — to a certain level. Others would vote for just about any tax. The question will be whether there’s a majority that can come together on a revenue stream or not."
As I was weeding through voice mails and e-mails from advocates laying out the consequences of the Senate budget, something a little different popped up.
This subject line says “Mohegan Sun Palmer offices open." Is it coincidence that the pro-casino forces are on the move the day the state Senate rolls out what Chairman Panagiotakos calls a “draconian budget?” I call the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut to find out. It would like to open a resort-style casino in Palmer.
"Clearly the changing economic climate and what has happened over the last 12 months has really pushed this issue to the forefront," Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hartmann told me.
Forty-six minutes after the Mohegan Sun message, I got the counterpoint in an e-mail from “Casino Free Mass.” That group delivered letters to all lawmakers Wednesday, “reminding them” that “Massachusetts can’t afford the costs of casinos in this economy.”
While the dueling camps may make a brief appearance in the Senate debate next week, State House leaders say they won’t take up an expanded gambling bill until the fall.
This program aired on May 14, 2009.
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