Senators seek counsel at Mattapan forum

Presented with a sheet of paper asking “What Would You Do?” and listing potential areas to cut in the state budget – education, health care, the environment, public safety – Alisa Ritchie balked.

A Dorchester resident who attended state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s Saturday budget forum in Mattapan, Ritchie kept looking over the sheet of paper. Put together by Chang-Diaz’s office, it was meant as an exercise and noted at the top that the state was facing a budget gap between $2 billion to $5 billion for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

“It’s hard to fill this out,” Ritchie said.

On the other side, individuals could select which tax they preferred, from adding 1 percent to sales, income, meals and hotel taxes, to eliminating tax exemptions on candy, soda and alcohol, to a 19-cent increase in the state’s gas tax.

One person who handed in the paper to Chang-Diaz’s staffers circled every option.

“Unlike the federal government, we can’t just print money to pay the bills,” Chang-Diaz told the dozen people who came to the Mildred Ave. Community Center forum on an overcast Saturday.

“There are no good choices,” she said afterwards.

Chang-Diaz, a former public school teacher, took participants through a Power Point presentation of the state’s dire fiscal situation, caused in part by a weak national economy and falling state revenues. (The last state the recession is hitting is Alaska, according to Gov. Deval Patrick’s health and human services secretary JudyAnn Bigby, who spoke at a separate Mattapan forum. “And they have lots of oil money.”)

Added state Sen. Jack Hart, who joined other members of the Dorchester delegation at the Mildred Ave. forum: “We’re going to see thousands of people laid off.”

Most attendees the forum expressed a willingness to pay an extra 10 cents on $10, as Hart described a proposed hike in the sales tax.

And that’s exactly what the 40-member Senate did on Tuesday, voting 29-10 to increase the sales tax to 6.25 percent from 5 percent, as the House voted in April, despite Patrick’s veto threat. Patrick says he wants to see pension, ethics and transportation reforms to hit his desk before any tax hike, including the ones he has proposed. Opponents of the sales tax hike argued that it would force residents to flee to tax-free New Hampshire.

The Senate also voted to apply the sales tax to retail alcohol sales and to allow cities and towns to levy an additional two percent on the five-percent meals tax.

“It’s a regressive tax,” Chang-Diaz said of the sales tax hike. “But it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

In total, the Senate’s votes offer up close to $1 billion in new revenue to plug the budget gap.

The Senate rejected moves to increase the gas tax and Chang-Diaz’s proposal to increase the state income tax, voting down her amendment by an 11-28 margin.

Chang-Diaz argued increasing the income tax was a fairer way of taxing individuals and would bring in over $1 billion in revenue, while Republicans and others argued the increase would hurt job creation efforts.

The Senate is also taking up hundreds of budget program amendments this week.

Chang-Diaz has offered up 15 amendments, relative to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination; an emergency food assistance program; Commonwealth Zoological Corporation; workforce training grants; a state rental voucher program; summer jobs for at-risk youth; and violence prevention grants.

Hart has filed over 50 amendments, including attempts to fund Safe Neighborhood Initiatives in Dorchester, including Bowdoin-Geneva and Grove Hall; Curley Recreation Center; cleaning metropolitan beaches; Sail Boston; Louis D. Brown Peace Institute; Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral’s office; Department of Public Health community grants; Joseph Timilty Adult Day Care Health program; the Tuttle House; and the Boston Home, a Dorchester Ave. nursing facility.

Hart has also filed an amendment that funds Patrick’s $400,000 Washington D.C. office. The original Senate budget, released earlier this month, stripped out the office.

Hart said he filed the amendment after Patrick called him.

“He thinks it’s a vital part of what he does,” Hart said. He said the office is able to bring federal money into state coffers.

House and Senate Republicans, who have unsuccessfully attempted to deep-six the office during past budget debates, say the state’s all-Democratic Congressional delegation renders the office unnecessary.

The debate over the budget is expected to last throughout the week. Lawmakers will then send the budget to a joint Senate-House committee to deal with any differences before it hits the governor’s desk.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.