Budget woes spare few as state revenues free-fall

And you thought the House’s version of the fiscal 2010 budget was bad. House lawmakers signed off on their $28 billion budget on Friday and economic forecasters are already saying it could be a billion dollars out of balance, even after a vote to hike the sales tax to 6.25 percent from 5 percent. Left on the table were youth anti-violence programs from the state Department of Public Health, among others.

“The Senate budget will be significantly worse than the bare bones budget of the House,” said state Sen. Jack Hart, a Dorchester Democrat.

Hart said he anticipated for the Senate to take up a larger sales tax increase than the House, but grimly said that it will likely still not be enough.

“It’s only a pittance as to what our debt is,” he said.
The House’s Dorchester delegation backed the sales tax increase that promises to bring in $900 million in revenue, despite a veto threat from Gov. Deval Patrick, who is demanding lawmakers bring reforms to his desk first.

Hart will be joining other Dorchester Democrats, including Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and state Reps. Willie Mae Allen and Linda Dorcena Forry, at a May 16 community budget forum at the Mildred Ave. Community Center in Mattapan.

The Senate budget is due out in mid-May, before heading to a small committee of both Senate and House members, and then to the governor’s desk. The budget is for the fiscal year starting on July 1.

“We need to hear from constituents because there are no right answers,” Chang-Diaz said.

They’re likely to get an earful, especially from advocates of anti-youth violence programs, who say they are mounting a “last-ditch” effort to preserve those programs.
“We’re talking about a huge impact on thousands of kids,” said Lew Finfer, executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

The $13 million anti-violence program that is popular among lawmakers, the Shannon Grant, survived complete elimination after House members voted to fund it at $6.5 million. A program providing jobs to youth workers, aimed at keeping them off the streets, was funded at $8 million.

But the Department of Public Health youth violence prevention program was not among the programs restored, effecting participants such as the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Dorchester Youth Collaborative, Codman Square Health Center and Dorchester House.

“All those Dorchester groups face those programs ending,” Finfer said.
Other programs also saw cuts. The House appropriated $25 million for education benefits to police officers in a program called the “Quinn Bill.” Lawmakers also included language to cut benefits for future police officers and grandfathering in current officers. Rep. Marty Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat, was among the representatives to push for fully funding the program at about $50 million.

Two programs managed to get restored, according to Forry’s office. The Boston Home, a Dorchester Ave. nursing facility in operation since 1881 that services adults with advanced multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases, saw a provision for the state to reimburse the facility for extended hours put back in the budget.

Forry also signed onto an amendment to restore funding to the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, which helps stock 800 food pantries across the state. The program was funded at $12 million in 2009 and cut to $8 million this fiscal year in the proposed House budget. The amendment restored the program to $12 million.

Forry said she hoped the House and Senate could meet “somewhere in the middle” when it comes to hashing out a joint budget.

“They can’t all be funded,” she admitted of the programs.

“This is a tough economic time,” she said. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to turn around anytime soon.”

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