Thursday, May 28, 2009

Got To Read Each Day

Let’s get off of politics for a post. I just got back from a book signing by one of my favorite authors. Michael Connelly is a former police beat reporter from Los Angeles who has written a series of mysteries, mostly about a detective named Hieronymus Bosch (I hope I spelled that right). He also has written a few books, including “The “Lincoln Lawyer” about a lawyer named Mickey Haller. These are great books and I think that he is one of the best at his craft right now. I bought “The Scarecrow”, his new novel.

Mr. Connelly was at Border’s with another great author, George Pelecanos. He was a writer and director for the TV series “The Wire”. He has also written about a dozen books and I look forward to reading these. I bought his new book, “The Way Home”.

I believe that reading is extremely important. It teaches us about people and places, but does so much more. On a basic level it teaches us vocabulary. It also teaches us to think and handle complex plots and problems. It allows us to use our imaginations and that introduces innovation and creativity into our thought process. That makes a tremendous difference in our lives.

I have been very active in our literacy efforts in the State House throughout most of my career. In 1993, I formed the literacy caucus along with former Representative Barbara Hildt and former Representative and former Mayor of Fall River Ed Lambert. That year we introduced the first state budget line item for adult basic education (ABE). We managed to get $4 million placed into the Education Reform bill and into the budget. Since then this line item has grown to a high of over $30 million. This has been used to create a network across the state. Adult basic education is broken down into three parts: literacy, GED preparation, and English as a second language. I have also been active in our local reading days or promotions. Libraries have been an important budget item for me. ABE has been my number one budget and legislative priority since 1993.

Reading is the great equalizer. You can be rich or poor, as long as you can get to a bookmobile or a library, you can meet interesting people or go to fascinating places within the pages of a book. And it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you continue to read. When I speak in schools about reading, I tell the kids that I read something every day. That is the truth. It is a practice that I have kept since my school days.

Back to Michael Connelly. He is a fascinating author that gives you a very detailed description of police work. His characters are complicated and varied and it brings you into the world of detective work. I like that. I have read all of his books. I like to stick with an author if I like his work. I have read all of the books by Stephen King, David Baldacci, Beth Saulnier, Dan Brown, and Lee Childs. Not everything I read is fiction. I am on my third book by Bill Bryson and have read a few of Robert Reich’s books on the economy. I am working through “The World is Curved” by economist David Smick, and have “China Inc.” about the emerging economy of China by Ted Fishman. Again, it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you enjoy it.

I'd like to share three stories about authors. First, I was fortunate to have been asked to introduce David Baldacci at a conference years ago. I hadn’t read any of his books, but had seen the movie “Absolute Power” based on his novel. I went out and bought “Saving Faith” and “The Winner” along with “Absolute Power” before meeting him. He graciously signed all of these and asked me which I liked best. I had to tell him I hadn’t read any, and he laughed and signed them anyway. Since then I have read all of his books and like the stories about the Camel Club best. If I had to recommend one book, though, read “Wish You Well”. It is different than most of his books and it is very good. Baldacci is very much involved in literacy and has his own literacy foundation. He deserves our support for his work and philanthropic support.

The second story is about author Beth Saulnier. Beth is from North Adams and I knew her father. In 1990, I was running for my third term and she was just back in North Adams from college, working for a local newspaper. We had just raised taxes in Massachusetts in reaction to a recession and very difficult budget year. It was a tough year for many and I had a very tough local challenger. During a debate where the questioners were members of the local media, she asked a question on an issue that hadn’t come up in the other debates that year. (It is a long story, so I will leave the actual question for a future post.) To make a long story short, I think I answered the question adequately, but my opponent gave this long rambling and funny answer. After that, I felt much better about reelection. Beth wrote five books under her name and two under the name Elizabeth Bloom. In a book set in North Adams, she autographed my copy of the book, “To Dan, whose political career I once saved.”

My third story is about the Senior Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy. I know Ted Kennedy as an elected official and admire him. In 2006, he wrote a book, “America Back on Track”. It is about what we need to do to revitalize this nation. That same year he was the commencement speaker at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. I brought my copy of the book to commencement to ask him to sign it. As I sat down with the Senator, he took his pen and started flipping through the book discussing certain parts and underlining passages. As he was doing that it struck me that here I am sitting with one of the preeminent US Senators of our times and the author of the book, and I have a copy not only signed, but he underlined his favorite passages and points. How cool is that?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

The following are my Memorial Day remarks for 2009. I join many others in remembrance of those who have fallen in service to this country. Thank you for your service.

Thank you for holding this ceremony. It is important that we gather here in thanks to those who have given themselves for their country. Many communities do not commemorate the day with as many ceremonies at their schools or town halls as we do here. We continue to do so and that says a lot about the character of our community. Thank you. Once again we are met on a Memorial Day, celebrating and commemorating those who gave their lives for this country and for their fellow man. We have been doing this for about 150 years, since a local druggist, a Mr. Welles, suggested after the Civil War that we honor those who fell in that war. That idea was picked up by Gen Murray, a patriot who had fought with distinction in the Civil War. He and Welles formed a committee and that first year they brought their Memorial Day ceremonies to three cemeteries locally. The next year they did the same thing and that is how this got started. It was originally called Decoration Day because that was how they commemorated the day, by decorating the graves of the fallen soldiers. That was 1865. In 1868, it was made an official day of commemoration, but it wasn’t until 1971 that the last Monday in May was designated as Memorial Day. The first President to speak at a national Memorial Day ceremony was James Garfield in 1880. His notable words capture the true spirit of why we set aside this day of remembrance: He said of our veterans, ”We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and virtue.”

I’d like to take Garfield’s stirring words one-step further. I’d like to believe the men and women we honor today immortalized more than their patriotism. They immortalized the principle that freedom is essential to the human condition. So vital is freedom that men and women die to preserve it – not only for themselves, but also for others.
Since that day in 1865, two things have remained consistent. Memorial Day ceremonies have been kept every year, and young men and women have given their lives for their country and to ensure our safety. It is not only fitting that we continue to observe this day, it is our duty as Americans to honor these fallen patriots. We honor their service, remind ourselves of the lessons taken from them, lessons on patriotism, service, lessons that teach us that great ideals such as democracy and freedom don’t simply happen, but come at a great cost, and rededicate ourselves to those same ideals that these heroes died for.
Stephen Ambrose said of WWII, we paid dearly in human lives, but he said that we didn’t tire of war or our responsibility, because determination outweighed that price. Determination, loyalty, patriotism…it doesn’t matter what you call it, it is the selflessness of young men and women who are called to duty and they sacrifice their safety and ultimately, their lives for their friends, family and even for people they have never met. They do so because they respond to the call of duty. They do so because they know that if they do not, then we lose something far greater, the democracy and the example of human rights and freedoms that is America.
And they must also realize that this service continues today; in Afghanistan, Iraq, patrolling the waters in East Africa, and so many other places where our troops put themselves in harm’s way to defend the ideals of our country. And that is the message that we must keep to pass along to each generation. In all of these cases, men and women served this country not because of an immediate threat to their families and homes, but to serve the ideals and principles of this country. They held dearly to the beliefs set forth by the Declaration of Independence. They are simple yet powerful; We hold these truths to be self evident, that all people are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are not just words to us, but the ideals for which men and women have unquestioningly, time and again, put themselves in harm’s way defending. And continue to do so today. As we adjourn our sessions in the State House, we have a moment of silence and adjourn in memory of any soldier that is killed in duty to their country. It still happens today and we still adjourn in honor of our fallen comrades and fellow citizens. None of these brave men and women planned to give their lives that day, but they knew the risks of military service and they risked their lives daily in the cause of a free nation.

At our best, we should pay homage to our nation’s dead all year round. But we don’t. One of the amazing things about living in a free land is that we don’t have to think each day about our freedoms. We can take for granted freedom of speech, assembly, worship and all the others that people have fought so hard to give to us. We can take them for granted because that is what freedom is; it is the ability to do what we can without fear that someone will take it away from us. But we, here today know, that the price of this freedom has been the blood of our men and women; those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of laying down their lives, those who sacrificed and came home wounded in body, mind, and spirit, and those who sacrificed by staying at home and waiting for their loved ones to return.
And we know that there will always be a need to be vigilant in this world. We need to make sure that in taking these freedoms for granted, we do not lose that sense of how dear freedom is, or how costly, and; as my grandfather, who came to this country and became a citizen because of the love for is adopted land, taught me years ago, we must not forget those who made and kept this nation as a beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world.
We must always remember what unites us as one America, and recognize that the mortar holding our society together is mixed with the blood and tears of those who fought and died in battle. Over one million and a quarter men and women have breathed their last while serving our country. We can never repay them and their families for this sacrifice, but we can honor their actions with our remembrance.

Let us hold up the example of their courage for all to see.
Let us carry the message of their sacrifice to the generations to come.
And let us never forget the price that they paid to ensure that this remains the greatest country in the history of this planet.

The brave men and women who gave their lives for our country deserve our remembrance and they have handed off to us that awesome responsibility to take up the service that they gave their lives for and pass it forth to a new generation. It is now up to us to be the heroes and the people who preserve those ideals and rights that they died for. Hopefully, someday we will not send people into battle to defend these inalienable rights. Hopefully someday we can live in peace. But that will only happen if we rededicate ourselves to our nation and to the lessons and ideals that these people gave of themselves to defend. That is why we meet each year, to remember their sacrifice and to thank them for that selfless sacrifice. We meet to remember that we must stay vigilant and become the next generation to advance these principles. And we meet to celebrate that great experiment in democracy that is called America.

As long as we continue to meet and commemorate their lives, then their lives continue to hold meaning and continue to inspire us to carry on the ideals of freedom and democracy. They continue to live in our hearts and minds and continue their service to our country. Again, thank you for holding this ceremony and God Bless America.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reform before Revenue

Lately in Massachusetts, this catch phrase has lead to all sorts of one-upmanship and criticism in the State House. The Governor has threatened to veto a proposed sales tax until he gets real reform and the House and Senate has gone off on the Governor for not understanding the process. I think we all need to take a step back and start again.

The newspapers and blogs have taken the Governor’s side in this and have gone as far as asking citizens to call their legislators to tell them to reform the system before revenue enhancements. This is complicated and let me give you one legislators opinion.

First, there is the premise that Legislators don’t want to reform the processes that we govern by. This is not true. As a matter of fact, both the House and Senate have passed various reform bills concerning ethics, pensions, and transportation. We are now reconciling these in conference committee. This is the process by which we work. The Governor should understand that. Second, while you may or may not agree with all the parts in the bills passed, all would be an improvement on the existing statutes. These will get better in conference and I think that most will be happy with the final bills.

So why not do these before the budget and any revenue increases? Our budget has to be passed by July 1st. We need to pass budgets in the House and Senate prior to that in order to conference the budget and get it to the Governor in time for his deliberations and signing. We can’t stop this practice as the state wouldn’t have a budget if we did and that would be bad for all of us. And we have a huge budget crisis that needs our attention. This is the worst I have seen in my 23 years in the Legislature and we need to resolve it before we know what else we can do on things such as transportation.

The Legislature is frustrated with the governor because he should understand this. The ethics bill doesn’t save a dime for the state and I would suggest that it doesn’t make us any more ethical. If you have a bad apple, they will continue to be ethically challenged regardless of how many laws one passes. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine our laws and change them to reflect our times, but this is not the most pressing issue for most people. As for the pension bill, by the Governor’s own words, it saves $1 billion over the next twenty years. We need to save $1.5 billion additionally in our budget this year because of lowered revenue figures in the past month! Again, I think most people would agree that we need to stop some of the past practices regarding pensions, but the real crisis is the budget and how we keep services intact for the citizens of the state.

I believe that the Governor is setting up “straw men” with issues that are popular with the press and play well. This is an old and reliable political ploy. However, his reticence to work with the Legislature on budget issues makes it far more difficult to resolve our budget problems.

The Governor has chastised the Legislature for not passing his gas tax. Then he has criticized us for passing a sales tax. As I have said in the past, the sales tax was not my first choice, but it was the only one with enough votes to pass. The Governor has said that a broad based tax such as the sales tax is a thumb in the eye to the citizens of the Commonwealth. Yet his gas tax would be a far larger broad based tax and much more unfair to large regions of the state. His criticism of taxes rings hollow in the face of the proposed gas, sugar, rooms, telecom and meals taxes that he has proposed. His suggestion that expanded gambling in Massachusetts is a broad based tax on the poorest residents and his department of revenue has increased their enforcement of business taxes to the point that the business community is ready to revolt.

If we want to restore the faith of the electorate, we need to pass a balanced budget that is intelligent and fair. Most people that I have talked to aren’t all that concerned about another ethics law. They equate it to dozens of gun laws and yet we still have gun crimes in the Commonwealth. If you want an honest legislature, elect honest people and let them do their jobs. People in my district are concerned over their health care, whether they can buy a house, get a job or get their kid into a college and afford to pay for it. They are worried about the economy and whether their property taxes will go up if the state can’t afford local aid. They are worried that their bridge won’t get repaired or their state park my not open or that their child can’t get a summer job. These are all budget issues. We need to finish our budget deliberations in order to do that.

Again, as I have said in the past, our budget doesn’t balance in the best of times. That is why we’ve laid off big dig debt on the Turnpike. It is why we took school building assistance and the MBTA out of our budget and gave them a revenue stream. It is why we were so backlogged in capital projects. And it is why we don’t fully fund health care each year shorting one part or another of the system. We can’t afford to do all this with the healthiest of revenue streams.

Rather than calling cuts reforms; and rather than kicking each other over the process, we should be working together on the worst budget crisis in the last 70 plus years. We should be planning for when we get out of this. We should being working to expand the economy. And we should be trying to find ways to do things cheaper while maintaining services because this is true reform.

But that takes hard work. It is easier to criticize one another over who is at fault or who mom likes best.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Fiscal Crisis in Massachusetts

The international fiscal crisis has hit us very hard in Massachusetts. With a proposed state budget that has already seen a reduction of $3.6 billion in proposed spending, revenue estimates indicate we will need to find at least $1 billion more in cuts. If we continue to reduce the budget in order to run government in the present manner, we are going to devastate some programs. It is clear we need to change the way we run government in order to get through this fiscal crisis. Where there are challenges there are also opportunities and we need to seize these in order to conduct a top to bottom examination of how government is run and what is expected of it.

In 1988, I was part of a small group that worked to address the fiscal crisis at that time. We proposed that we cut the size of government by reducing our employees by 6,000 (10%) and finding $600 million in reductions in our approximately $11 billion budget. We proposed reforms to change the way we delivered services. We also proposed raising taxes. After a lot of consternation and debate, we ended up passing almost all of our plans. The challenge is even larger this time and we need to examine everything we do, and how we do it in order to cope with this crisis.
It is clear that in any given year we can’t sustain the current budget even given better times and revenues. In 1980, the voters in Massachusetts passed a limitation on our property taxes. It restricts the amount that cities and towns can raise in property taxes. As a result, communities look to state government for more assistance and the state has responded. Also in the 1980’s the federal government cut back on federal programs and eliminated federal revenue sharing. David Stockman, the budget director in the Reagan White House put it succinctly, saying that you can’t share revenues when running a deficit. There were no revenues to share. Considering that Reagan raised the budget deficit more than every President combined up to his time, he was probably right, but it placed even further burden on state government. You have one branch shouldering a burden that was previously shared by three.

Even though state government has picked up a larger burden, it has not been without cost. Our infrastructure has suffered as well as long term programs such as our pension system. Even in relatively good years we have underfunded or avoided our obligation on such things as the Big Dig or the MBTA. In order to address long term concerns, we need to fix our budget, decide the proper role for state government, and set us on a course that promotes long term planning and stability. During this year’s budget debate, I said several times that we need a four pronged approach to address our fiscal dilemma. We need to cut, increase taxes, reform government and increase our job base.

Cuts: We need to examine the core functions of government. Every program in state government has a constituency and does good things, but we can’t afford to be all things to all people. One of the raps on democrats is that we decide what is best for people rather than let them make a choice (candy tax?). We need to examine all programs to find those that we can’t afford and either eliminate them or cut them back. We also need to examine the number of people in state government and find ways to cut the number of employees that we have. That doesn’t mean that employees don’t do a good job, most do. However, we need to find ways to do more with less. In order to get our house in order, we need to cut the budget. I have always opted for cutting programs out rather than enact across the boards cuts. Across the board lessens all programs regardless of their efficacy.

Taxes: Taxes are the price we pay for government. In fact, our budget demands are countercyclical. The need for our services rises during economic downturns while at the same time, our revenues plummet. Our tax burden is not high in Massachusetts. I am cognizant of the fact that the cost of living is high in Massachusetts and we need to factor that into discussions over tax burden, but once we find the core functions of government, you have to pay for them. Nuff said. We need to have a discussion over this that we never seem to have. First we need to determine what we expect from government and then we need to discuss how we pay for this. Former Speaker Charles Flaherty once told me that we should make a list of line items in order of importance in the state budget. Then we should apply state funding. If we run out of money we need to discuss whether we should fund those things left. Either they are not important or we find the revenues.

Reform: Much has been said about reforms by our Governor lately. I appreciate his passion, but I have a different definition of reform. I have several problems with the Governor’s approach. First, he is setting up straw men. We will address his concerns by the time the budget comes around to his desk. By demanding action, he is not advancing the arguments of reform, just playing politics. Second, I haven’t seen a lot of reform, just cuts and these cuts don’t address the bottom line of the budget. In the Governor’s initial Youtube budget video, he states that his pension reform will save a billion dollars over the next twenty years. That is laudable, but we need to save one billion this year! The Governor can criticize pension all he wants. (He never filed a reform bill.) We all agree on the programs and changes he is referring to. I agree on the MBTA pension, but the percentage of employees that take retirement in their 40’s is very small. After twenty years at that age the pension is around 40%, so one can’t realistically afford this. As for “retired” legislators, yes, take away a stupid loophole that most of us would be embarrassed to take. However, the three million dollar savings is an estimate if people currently in their forties and fifties live to their late eighties! This hardly solves the problem. Again, I am not saying we shouldn’t do these, but they are easy and we all agree on these. This is hardly major reform, but a political talking point. They are straw men.

What we need is more detail on his other reforms. Saving money on back room operations in our transportation departments is a good idea and standard business practice in the private sector, but how will this work? Time after time the Governor has filed bills with little detail and has expected us to pass these so that government could work out the details later. This is wrong and we are derelict of our duties if we pass something without working out the details beforehand. To me, reforms means walking into each secretariat and asking how we can deliver services for less using new technologies or techniques. Massachusetts’ economy and heritage has always been built on innovation. We need to apply these techniques to state government. For example, we have reformed our health care system, but not the delivery system. Why not a single biller system that takes the administrative costs off of individual health care entities and places them in one place doing the work of many. Why don’t we accept federal reporting requirements rather than duplicate these on the state level? Why don’t we make it easier to reuse unused drugs in nursing homes? Why don’t we push to include wiring in each new state subsidized housing project in order to place new technologies in elder apartments that keep people in their homes, monitoring them electronically? It is far cheaper than hospitalization, nursing home placement or even an individual care giver coming to each home to find out if they have taken medication. These are real reforms. Instead of pushing for the candy bar patrol, perhaps we should work on these ideas.
Reforms? Well, we know that six acres of photovoltaic produces one megawatt of electricity. That seems like a lot, but we have acres and acres of rooftops on state office buildings. Why don’t we lead by example and produce green power while reducing our electric costs? Why don’t we combine our phone systems and go out to bid for one phone system for state government? These are real reforms.

How about an executive order reducing paperwork in each department by ten percent? That’s real reform and in today’s technological society, I am sick of seeing people printing out each and every email.

Back to transportation: How about we take some of the green jobs money and exchange every
light in every traffic signal in the Commonwealth with new energy efficient lighting. We could cut energy consumption to a fraction of current use (no pun intended). It has saved a bundle on the Cape. Or how about we use roller compacted concrete as a base for our side roads at far less cost? Massport uses this as it is far more durable than asphalt. And let’s go out to bid for our aggregate (stone) for road jobs. We use the California standard. We primarily utilize two companies that ship aggregate in from out of state and we pay much more than the national average. If we used a different standard we could save millions in road projects. These are real reforms. Reforms aren’t simply cutting government, but real reforms require thought and innovation. How do we do more with less? Private companies constantly undergo this kind of self examination in order to stay competitive. We need to do the same.

We need to break down the silos in state government and let them communicate, like interlocking boards of directors. We need to place management from one department into others at staff meetings so we better coordinate state government actions and deliberations. That coordinates programs, cuts down on duplication and combines resources. That’s real reform.

The bottom line is that if we are to continue to deliver programs and services without continually telling people that we must make do with less, we need to reform our delivery system.

Increase jobs: Let’s face it, we can ask individual taxpayers for more money, or we can create more taxpayers. In order to do that, we need more people employed. That means we need to create jobs. I have written extensively about this before, so let me just reiterate a few points.

First, we need to stop treating the business community like the enemy. They create jobs and more jobs than government can create. And we need a consistent policy that gives the business community a level of comfort that the rules won’t continually change. They want consistency and transparency in rules and regulations. We haven’t achieved that and we must in order to create jobs.

We need to rein in the department of revenue. I know we need to maximize revenues, but they can’t take that task on. Their job is to promote a consistent policy, not to make policy.

We don’t need to take on individual business sectors in order to promote them over other sectors. We need to lay the foundation for any type of business that wants to be here. Things like workforce training, land preparation; coordination of assistance programs, and a healthy education system, as well as a clean environment is the basis for our economy. We need a consistent policy that promotes growth and makes business a partner with the state in order to grow revenues.

Another long post, but I believe that this is an important subject and is complicated. We have the responsibility to do more than cut and tax. We need a sense of history, not histrionics. People deserve more than catch phrases and slogans. I will post on the individual pieces of this more in the future.

Monday, May 4, 2009

House State Budget Wrap-up (Spending)

The following is the press release we put out on the budget. We passed a budget that closed a #.6 billion budget gap through revenue increases, cuts to line items (including elimination of dozens of line items), and changes in programs (reforms) that lead to tens of millions in savings. The budget is balanced and we can move forward in the process.
Two items to note in the process were that we didn’t use any of our stabilization funds and we took a hit on insurance for our own state employees. With regards to the stabilization fund, it is down to $1.2 billion and we will need some of this to balance our books at the end of this fiscal year. We need to keep the rest as we know that this budget crisis will not end in one fiscal year. We will need this and the pain of dealing with short revenues and unmet needs will go on for several fiscal years. Charley Murphy, the Chair of Ways and Means deserves a lot of credit for not responding to the moment and planning for the future by keeping this money from being spent now.

As for the insurance increase, I wanted to keep our insurance split at 85-15. In other words, we pay 85% of the costs and the worker pays 15%. We ended up at 80-20. I know that most people will not understand this and will insist that workers pay more for their insurance. I know that people will point to the fact that most private employees pay more as a percentage of the costs. However, we shouldn’t spring this on our workers during a budget debate which gives them little or no time to plan for increased costs. Second, while the percentage has been the same and is, admittedly high, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Because our percentages have stayed the same, the insurance commission has increased co-pays and deductions. For example, if you have to go to a second tier hospital in our system, your costs can be as high as a $700 co-pay up to four ties in a calendar year. So it is not as if costs have stayed the same for state workers. They pay more even when the percentage contributions stay the same. I am not going to beat this horse, but in Berkshire County, if you are in Tufts Navigator, there are no first tier hospitals, so you end up paying more. If you have to take anything other than a preferred drug (for example, for some reason the generic drug doesn’t work and you have to pay for name brand), well, I pay $ 53 on a $60 prescription. For a state employee in the GIC indemnity plan, the 70-30 split would have cost $4,000 more per year. Tough to pay when one is making $50,000/yr. Even with the 80-20 split, the cost for the indemnity plan increases around $100/mo. That is tough to take as we decrease the number of employees, freeze wages, ask for furloughs, and then ask them to work harder. I wish we could have done better.

Here is the press release we have issued on the line items and areas that I worked with in the budget:


BOSTON – With the conclusion of the House budget deliberations late Friday evening, State Representative Daniel E. Bosley (D – North Adams) commented on the amended FY 2010 proposed spending plan, saying; “This has been a very tough budget process. With a predicted $3.6 billion dollar deficit, many programs were cut or not included at all in this House budget. In recognition of the dire fiscal situation the state and nation are facing, my budget priorities this year reflected services that, in times like these, become heavily relied upon.”

To offset the deficit and to preserve local aid, the House voted to increase the sales tax by 1.25%. The vote keeps the exemption on key household items, such as food, clothing and home heating oil, which have never been taxed. It also eliminates the need for burdensome taxes on gas, alcohol and sugar. The estimates revenues from this are projected around $900 million, which will supplement the original local aid projections, as well as allow funding for other vital programs implemented across the Commonwealth.

Earlier in the week, the House passed an amendment to restore $205 million in local aid to cities and towns and a 6.65% increase from the original projections for the First Berkshire District. The recalculated projected Chapter 70 (local aid) funding, which includes funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for Rep. Bosley’s district are as follows:

Adams - 2,269,459
Charlemont - 325,522
Clarksburg - 2,241,267
Florida - 617,512
Hawley - 67,594
Heath - 87,779
Monroe - 109,266
North Adams - 19,118,020
Rowe - 79,485
Savoy - 654,064
Williamstown - 1,967,845

While the FY 2010 Budget adopted by the House for higher education does reduce state funding for our public higher education institutions by approximately $156.8 million (16%) from FY 2009 levels, the federal funds provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, when coupled with the state appropriations we provided in the House Budget, will bring funding for our public higher education institutions back to their FY 2009 levels. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts was funded at $14,372,730 and of that amount, a total of $350,000 is for the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative, and of that, $100,000 is allocated for the Berkshire Compact, which assesses and evaluates the higher education resources available to Berkshire County residents.

Through a language change in a Medicaid line item, championed by Representative Bosley, North Adams Regional Hospital was able to prevent cuts of approximately $3 million to their budget. This boost of funding, won on the floor, is particularly important considering that the Hospital has already made $4.5 million in cuts to their budget from last year through cutting costs, lay-offs of staff, and contract negotiations.

This year’s budget was not heavily laden with earmarks. As a result, earmarks within line items that Representative Bosley has typically secured are not present as earmarks; however, the majority of funding for these earmarks was preserved as a certain percentage within the overall line item. For example, the Turner House, which serves homeless and low income veterans in Williamstown and has historically been funded at $42,000, will retain seventy five percent of their funding from last year (which equates to $31,500). In addition to that, the United Veterans of America: Soldier On, which has been funded at $100,000, will also retain seventy five percent of their FY ’09 funding (amounting to $75,000).

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition (NBCC) oversees all of Northern Berkshire’s social services, making sure that there is no grant application duplication or programs competing to offer our small constituency similar services. One of the programs, the Berkshire Youth Development Project, was funded at eighty percent of its FY ’09 funding which gives them $120,000 to continue coordinating efforts aimed at youth. In addition to that, $200,000 was secured for the Massachusetts Model Community Coalitions, of which the NBCC will receive $50,000. According to Rep. Bosley, “in this low economic period, our community coalitions can mobilize our communities to advocate about those services that are most critically needed, ensuring that our constituents talk with each other in finding ways to coordinate, collaborate, and maximize those resources that are left. Dollar for dollar this program is, in my opinion, one of the best in the Commonwealth. For every dollar the State puts into this, $33 is generated in community projects and programs.”

Representative Bosley also sponsored an amendment, which the House passed, to clarify language in the dairy farm tax credit from last session. The 90% refundable tax credit allows farmers to take a credit when the federal milk marketing order price for the applicable market drops below a trigger price established by the Commissioner of Agricultural Resources. The Department of Agriculture is charged with developing regulations to ensure that the cost of the tax credit to the state range from zero when milk prices are sufficient to cover Massachusetts farmers’ production expenses to no more than $4 million. The technical correction ensures that farmers will have $4 million available for assistance each year.

The 15 Regional Transit Authorities across the Commonwealth received an $8.2 million increase in funding from the originally proposed budget for a total of $54,993,971. This funding would ensure that proposed service reductions that threaten to affect consistent transportation and will allow RTAs to provide quality, reliable and cost-effective service for seniors, workers, the disabled and the general public.

The budget also included language that allocates $1,000,000 for a grant application process to offset deficits incurred at highway information centers on state highways and federally-assisted highways, including the Adams Visitor Center. “In tough economic times, keeping the Adams Visitor Center functioning as fully as possible will help the Berkshires maintain the vital tourism industry and allow it to continue flourishing”, said Bosley.

In addition to those achievements, Representative Bosley and the other members of the Berkshire delegation – Representative Smitty Pignatelli (D-Lenox), Representative Denis Guyer (D-Dalton) and Representative Chris Speranzo (D-Pittsfield) were able to secure funding for the following local and statewide programs that directly affect the Berkshires:

• $150,000 for the Western MA Enterprise Fund to provide workforce training in Western MA
• $9,383,215 for Berkshire Community College
• $50,521,840 for regional school transportation, 72% of the FY’09 total allocation
• $150,000 for the Bay State Games, which is crucial funding for the annual events held in Williamstown and North Berkshire County
• $50,000 for the Senior Farm Share Program
• Local police departments will receive 25% of their FY ’08 Community Policing grant awards

This bill, the House budget proposal, engrossed in the House, will now be sent to the Senate for consideration and debate. Once the Senate engrosses its version of the budget document, a conference committee will work out the differences between the two versions for final enactment. The bill will then be sent to the Governor.

House State Budget Wrap-up (revenues)

Friday brought the end to budget deliberations in the House. The House of representative passed a $906 million increase in the sales tax in Massachusetts. That raised the tax from 5% to 6.25%. We kept the exemptions the same, so food (except for meals tax) and clothes under $1175.00 are exempt as are many other goods and services. Any tax increase is a tough vote. I think that many members were cognizant of the fact that we have had a sharp increase in unemployment over the past six months and we know that many people are worried about their finances. However, the nature of government is that demand for our services is countercyclical with revenues and we need to try to meet demands as much as possible. Our budget, due to the global recession and falling state revenues was $532 million less than the Governor’s budget and we needed to backfill revenues to meet demand. The tax increase allowed us to cover close to $300 million in transportation costs, commit almost $300 million to increasing local aid, and cover some programs that weren’t covered in the budget originally. I think that this was worth it.

The inclusion of the sales tax increase in the budget caused quite a firestorm with the Governor. He sent a letter to house members stating that he wasn’t happy with a broad based tax in the budget and later said he would veto the sales tax if it hit his desk. He later said that he wanted reform before revenues, and even later, said he wasn’t against the sales tax, but wanted to get his package in place instead. All of this leads one to wonder where the Governor will be when the budget is placed before him. At any rate, it was important that we passed a budget and send it to the Senate as they need to get to work on it. Budgets are snapshots in time and our “snapshot” on revenues is based on consensus revenue figures available at the start of the House budget process. We know that the figure we will end up with is much less, and both the Senate and conference committee will need time to process this. One could ask why we didn’t downgrade our revenue figures if we knew that revenues were dropping. Good question. Budgets are snapshots and if we downgraded or upgraded revenues based on the data available when we were deliberating, it would change every day. The same is true of line items. The needs change every day and if we reacted to this, we could never get a budget done. So we did our budget in order to keep the process going and we will work out revenues available with the best information available during budget deliberations as well as during the conference. The Governor also has the power to make corrections by vetoing or amending the budget as well as limiting the amount in the budget during the year by using his power to withhold funds in order to keep the budget balanced. This is a constitutional requirement in Massachusetts as well as most other states.

As for revenues, the final decision to vote for the increase was an easy one, although as readers of this blog (my daughter, Greg Roach and Clark Billings!) know, it was not my first choice. I felt that if the average person was going to be hit with $144/yr in order to increase the sales tax by $906 million/yr, then we should have raised the income tax to 5.8% 9or an average of $150.00/yr/average person)in order to raise $1.2 billion. In other words, for a burden of an extra $6.00/yr, we could have raised an additional $300 million. However, as the Speaker correctly pointed out, “politics is the art of the possible”, and the votes for the income tax were not present in the House. So we went with the sales tax in order to bring more money primarily to cities and towns as well as fund some of the transportation budget gap.

The other reason that this was easier for me was that it replaced the Governor’s proposals to increase a tax on “sugar” foods and a gas tax increase. While the Governor decried the use of a broad based tax to balance our budget, his gas tax would have cost the average taxpayer in my district about double the burden of an increased gas tax. I am not sure why the Governor does not consider this a broad based tax. Given this choice between the gas and other taxes, or a sales tax, the choice was easy.

Finally, the gas tax would have been used in the Boston area disproportionately while the sales tax will be collected more heavily in the Boston area, so again, this was an easy choice.