Senate sees limited success in restoring programs

Senators wasted little time last week attempting to restore programs that were slated for cuts under their version of the fiscal 2010 budget. After signing off on a 25 percent sales tax hike, Senate lawmakers also quietly approved giving cities and towns to levy additional taxes on meals.

Gov. Deval Patrick had long been pushing – and continuously rebuffed by the Legislature – local options taxes, which have the support of schools and municipalities that say they are starved for revenues. The taxes are expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

State Sen. Jack Hart singled out removing a sales tax exemption of alcohol sold in package stores. The move would bring in $80 million for substance abuse and treatment programs, which was “long overdue,” he said.

Hart also successfully restored funding for the Boston Home, a facility on Dorchester Ave. and the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, which serves at-risk teens.

Among the amendments that Hart filed and the Senate rejected was $400,000 to fund Patrick’s Washington D.C. office and dedicated State Police patrols of local parks and the Neponset Greenway trails.

Funding for the patrols has been included in the state budget since 1999, and local advocates of the greenway say with fewer patrols, there could be more vandalism, such as slurs and swastikas spray-painted on park benches last month.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz touted the restoration of $2 million for youth violence prevention programs within the Department of Public Health and $1 million for community health centers. About $4 million will go towards a statewide summer jobs program for at-risk youth, and $6.5 million, below the $13 million advocates wanted, for the popular Shannon Grant program, which funds patrolling of crime hot spots, youth outreach and after-school programs and community-wide anti-gang meetings.

Chang-Diaz also was able to restore $1 million for the Commonwealth Zoological Corporation, which oversees Franklin Park Zoo. The park sees 524,000 guests annually, according to Chang-Diaz’s office.

The Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance program, under increasing demand and facing higher food prices, was also boosted by $3.5 million to $12 million in the Senate budget.

Senators rejected Chang-Diaz’s proposal to raise the state income tax to 5.95 percent, which Chang-Diaz argued was a more fair tax than the sales tax.

The budget now heads to a “conference committee” of House and Senate lawmakers, who will work to send a final version of their respective budgets to Patrick’s desk before July 1, the start of the fiscal year 2010.

An umbrella organization of progressive, left-leaning groups, ONE Massachusetts, criticized the tax hikes as insufficient in stabilizing the budget.

Harmony Blakeway, the organization’s director of operations, said they have not endorsed a specific tax package, but added they were encouraging members to call lawmakers working on the budget with their preference.

“They do have some leeway in working what’s already in the bills,” though no new tax proposals can be included, she said.

Lawmakers have said they expect a debate on expanded gambling to take place in the fall. Patrick’s proposal to bring three resort casinos to the state, along with jobs and revenues from licensing fees, died in the House in March 2008 thanks to an ardent opponent of gambling, then-House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi.

The current speaker, Robert DeLeo, has expressed openness to expanded gambling, as has Senate President Therese Murray, who has warned any money from casinos would not be seen until the fiscal year 2011 budget.