Fretting over cuts in budget

For social services lobbyist Judy Meredith, lawmakers reviewing Gov. Deval Patrick’s state budget as they craft their own versions have two choices: “More cuts, or more revenues.”

Patrick has unveiled a $28.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2011 that makes nearly $800 million in cuts while leaving money to cities and towns at the same levels as last year. He also pressed a proposal to tax non-alcoholic beverages and candy, and asked lawmakers to lift sales tax exemptions on cigars and smokeless tobacco. The governor has also proposed cutting back on the state’s film tax credit, which is aimed at drawing Hollywood studios and creating jobs within the small local film industry.

His budget also depends on $175 million from the state’s rainy day fund and $600 million from Congress. It remains unclear whether the federal money will be approved. “If this federal money doesn’t come through, we are in very scary shape,” Meredith said.

Meredith is among the group of activists pushing for the increased funding for programs through higher taxes. Individuals from more than 50 groups met this week at the Boston Teachers Union headquarters in Dorchester for training in understanding the Beacon Hill budget process and organizing meetings with lawmakers to defend their programs.

“The outcome of spending more money is healthier people and smarter children,” said Bill Walczak, head of the Codman Square Health Center. “If we need to pay more for it, we should pay more for it.” Walczak, who expects to lose half a million dollars this year in state funding because of the tight budget, said anti-violence programs, youth services, adult dental programs, and others have sustained hits to their budgets over the last two years because of the weak economy.
“In terms of those kinds of things, there’s very little appetite for new taxes,” he said. “I think it takes a lot of guts and I support Gov. Patrick’s efforts. But beyond that, we’re still suffering as a community. I’m looking at youth programs that are suffering terribly.” That includes the popular anti-gang violence program, also known as the Shannon Grant, which has been cut from $13 million a year ago to $4.5 million in the governor’s proposed budget. The Department of Public Health’s youth violence prevention program has been pared back to $2 million from $3.5 million. Local programs that are among the recipients include the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, the Codman Square Health Center, the Dorchester House, and Project RIGHT in Grove Hall.

The state’s teen jobs program has also been cut to $3.7 million from $8 million.

“It’s a tough picture again for programs that are important to Dorchester youth and crime prevention,” said Lew Finfer, executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. For his part, Patrick told reporters at the press conference announcing the budget’s details, “Services will suffer and people and communities will feel it.”

The budget crunch comes as the governor faces re-election in November with Republican and independent candidates are lining up to take him on. “Overall, I would say the governor is in a very, very tough place, being in an election year where his opponents are talking about cutting taxes if elected,” Walczak said. Both he and Meredith argue that there is a disconnect in the electorate, where people expect government to provide services but don’t expect to pay for them.
“At some point we have to acknowledge that there is a need for additional taxes,” he said. “The argument is you don’t raise taxes when times are bad. In this state, we don’t raise taxes any time. We cut taxes when times are good. We cut taxes when times are bad. Well, somebody has to pay the bill.”

But lawmakers – at least in the House – say there is little appetite to raise any taxes, especially since the sales tax was hiked 25 percent last year to 6.25 percent. “I don’t there’s the will out there anymore,” said state Rep. Martin Walsh (D-Savin Hill). “This year’s budget is going to be brutal and painful to a lot of places. The people of the Commonwealth don’t want any more taxes. They’re struggling to keep their jobs, the people that have jobs. I don’t think you can get 25 votes on the House side to vote to raise taxes.”
Lawmakers made a wrong turn by raising the sales tax, which has not brought in enough money because people are not buying enough, he said, adding, “we raised the wrong tax. It’s not going to generate enough revenue. We don’t have another shot.”

Walsh questioned Patrick’s move to protect local aid, saying social service programs have suffered throughout the recession. “I think we need to look at local aid,” he said while pointing out that “social service programs have been cut, they’ve been decimated.” He also said cutting back on the state’s film tax credit was a “double-edged sword. Every time we go to eliminate some film tax credit, we’re eliminating jobs.”

Walsh recalled that when he was first elected to the state House, in 1997, he was easily able to procure $120 million in capital funds for Dorchester projects, including train stations and parks. “We were very, very lucky then,” Walsh said. “Those days are long gone.”

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