Saturday, June 20, 2009

FY 2010 Budget Statement

This is a very tough but honest budget. Over the past year, we have experienced a revenue drop that I have not seen in my 23 years in the legislature.

In a normal budget year, we would have experienced a $1.4 billion increase in our budget due to the natural expansion of obligations in areas such as health care, pensions, education, debt service on prior year capital spending and other prior approved spending.

This year, we not only cut out any increase in spending, but we also cut over $1 billion in the House budget and then closed a $1.5 billion gap by utilizing $199 million from the stabilization account. We also maximized federal funds and continued to make further cuts to our bottom line. In short, between our current budget and next year’s, we had to close a $5 billion gap.

We are not alone; this is a worldwide recession and every state is going through the same process. We are fortunate that in years past the Legislature had placed money into a Stabilization Fund that we have been able to draw down over the last few months.

In an effort to balance the budget, we have reformed our transportation system, cut dozens of line items in their entirety, reformed the way we do business in state government and increased our own health insurance premiums. Through the whole process we made tough decisions and were forced to raise the state sales tax to 6.25%.

We did not come to these decisions lightly. In my opinion, the increase to the sales tax was preferable to the Governor’s more burdensome gas tax proposal which would have cost my constituents approximately three times as much as the sales tax.

These budget times are unprecedented in recent history. No part of the budget was spared, including local aid. We are bound by the state constitution to create a balanced budget and we tried to find the proper balance between cuts, taxes and reforms.

Can we do more to reform our budget? Yes, but real reform is difficult and takes time. The legislature will continue to work on these reforms as we go forward.

That said, there are some bright spots for the 1st Berkshire District. We were able to keep 75% of the funding for veterans services like the Turner House. The Emergency Food Assistance Program was level funded at $12 million and the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program was brought up to $1.2 million.

Payment in lieu of taxes was zeroed out in some versions but in the end we were able to ultimately achieve funding of $27.3 million.

Language was kept in for funding our community coalition.

The Mass Cultural Council, so important to our economy, was funded at $9.7 million.

Regional Transportation Authorities (RTA's) received $44.6 million, but there are new funding formulas that will among other things annually allocate $15 million of the Massachusetts Transportation Trust Fund to RTAs as we continue to work to modernize our system as a whole.

Local Tourism Councils were kept funded in a time where it would have been easy to be short sighted and eliminate this expenditure entirely.

We funded the essential School Pothole Account at $3.5 million and that is an important avenue for our distressed schools.

Our colleges and our Councils on Aging both received modest increases.

Again, this is the worst revenue outlook that I have experienced in my 23 years. I worked very hard and did my best to secure funding in these tough times for my constituents. All of this was done in an incredibly tough year. I have, in the past, worked to bring reform to the way we do business in Massachusetts. I will continue to work hard to do this in the future as it is a pleasure to work for the great people of North Berkshire and Franklin County.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Slot Resolution at Democratic Convention

Congratulations to all the people who worked hard to get an anti-slot resolution adopted during the Democratic Issues Convention this weekend. Getting this adopted was impressive and makes me feel that we still can beat this when it comes up for a vote later this year. Good job!

Sal DiMasi and Public Service

Since the news of indictments broke this week, I have been thinking over what to say or even what to think concerning this whole matter. I was one of the last defenders of the Speaker in the House and was quite vocal. I have been thinking over this a lot in the past few days and know that I have to write something.

First, let me say that I still won’t make any judgments concerning Sal DiMasi. That is now for the courts and everyone is innocent until the trial is over. Everyone deserves this right.

So what can I say? Well, for starters, I have been asked how we could have voted in January for a Speaker that had been in the paper so many times over the past year with all of the allegations concerning Cognos and other issues. I won’t speak for anyone else, but there were at least three reasons that I voted for him. First, he was and is my friend and I had never seen any impropriety from him in the years that we worked together. Politics is a rough and tumble business and that doesn’t mean I hadn’t seen him partake in the shoulder sharpened tactics that we all employ when are sure we are right on an issue. But I have never seen the Speaker cross the line on the ethics of an issue.

Second, our word is our bond in the Legislature. We live by our ability to convince people of our positions on issues. We live and die by our word. So when I was told on many occasions that nothing wrong was done on the allegations, I believe that we are wired to believe each other on this count as we know how much it means when we say such things to one another.

Third, there were alternative explanations for each and every allegation. For example, I was told that the department of education needed to have new software in order for our Ways and Means Committee to be able to see into the department. We spend more on education than on most parts of the budget and we need information in order to spend that money wisely. It makes sense, then, to go out to bid for software that makes the system more transparent to us and that gives us this information. It wasn’t as if Cognos was a “fly by night” company. They were a reputable firm. Lastly, I knew that we didn’t make the decision in the Legislature as to who was awarded the contract. Therefore, I tended to believe the Speaker on these issues as they made sense with alternative explanations and given how we operate.

There were other issues at work here as well. Many times in my career, I have been contacted by friends or acquaintances looking for help with the government. This may be help, or for a reference in getting a job that is posted or they have a great idea and need the services of our economic development offices. When someone in the business community calls me and tells me that they are having trouble with the department of revenue because they have fallen behind on their taxes, I will call DOR and remind them that we shouldn’t be in the business of putting people out of business and ask them to work something out. Or perhaps someone will have a problem with the registry of motor vehicles and we try to be helpful. Each one of us has businesses that we know or are in our district that call us. Constituent requests make up a lot of our phone calls and advocacy. In all cases, I ask the department in question for a fair shake and consideration. After that, it is up to the business or individual to make their own case on the problem or issue in question. But people shouldn’t be penalized for knowing us or for their friendship. I assume or assumed that the Speaker was doing the same thing.

Lastly, those of us in public life are frustrated by the press and that leads us to discount their stories when there are legitimate concerns. When was the last time we saw a good story about the work of the Legislature in the press? I would gladly take the bad stories if they wrote about all the good work we do. I work very hard for my constituents and spend a lot of time in Boston, away from my family and district in doing so. I have been the author of quite a few major pieces of legislation, and have never had a scandal in my district or office. That is not the exception, but the rule. Most members work very hard for their districts and on many state issues. Yet, over the past week, we have been called pigs, enablers, crooks, bums, and a few more choice words. People never see all the good we do and yet get the daily dose of allegations. A little balance would be nice.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do to make the system and situation better. There are. However, we must make sure that we don’t rush in and change things that will make it more difficult to do our jobs. The toughest ethics laws in the world are not going to stop someone who will betray their constituents and the public trust. So we need to be smart concerning reforms. I would suggest that one of the ways we can make government more transparent and get more people involved in by going back to doing business the way we used to when I first came into the Legislature. By that I mean that we should print our daily calendar and have more formal sessions dealing with issues before us. The daily calendar was a listing of all bills ready for action. We used to read through the calendar each day and then go back through it to take up issues ready for debate. Not only is this more informative for the public, but gives the whole Legislature more power by placing each issue in some form on the floor. With that one can make motions and it gets harder for a select few to decide what we will deal with. This gives tremendous empowerment to the rank and file members and it also hones debate skills as more people speak on the floor.

I also think we need a way to televise our hearings and sessions again. I have always been surprised by the number of people who would tell me they watched our sessions. It is expensive, but I feel we need to try to find a way to cover this as it adds a lot to our transparency.

There is more, but this post is already overly long. I promised myself that I would cut the size of these, but as I have said before, these are complicated issues and the public deserves more than a sound bite.