With Massachusetts feeling the effects of the nationwide economic crisis, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz hosted a community forum in Roxbury last Thursday evening to hear constituents’ concerns and shed some light on the slashed state budget now making its way through the Legislature.
Chang-Díaz, a first-term Democrat who ousted longtime incumbent Dianne Wilkerson from the Second Suffolk District seat last fall, kicked off the meeting at the Roxbury YMCA with a PowerPoint presentation on the state of the Massachusetts budget, the Commonwealth’s fiscal health and its future.
Citing figures provided by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, where Chang-Díaz formerly served as director of outreach, the presentation detailed the various items funded by state revenues, including education, transportation, libraries, parks and recreation, affordable housing and human services.
The senator then described how lower-than-expected revenue collections have impacted the state’s budget situation — namely, how they contributed to a structural budget gap of $5 billion in fiscal year 2009 that led to rounds of so-called “9C cuts” in October 2008 and January 2009. (The cuts are named after Section 9C of Chapter 29 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which allows mid-year cuts in spending; governors use the provision to comply with the state law mandating that the budget be brought into balance when projected revenue falls short of projected spending.)
During a question-and-answer session following Chang-Díaz’s presentation, Gov. Deval Patrick and state Rep. Gloria L. Fox also fielded audience questions about budget priorities. City Councilor-at-Large Sam Yoon, a Boston mayoral hopeful this fall, joined the elected officials on the panel as well.
A variety of community interests and organizations attended the meeting, most notably the purple-and-yellow-T-shirt clad members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199, who were representing the United Healthcare Workers East, a group of 33,000 health care workers in Massachusetts.
The union members expressed concern that reduced state revenues could further damage — and possibly even lead to the closing of — Boston Medical Center (BMC), the area’s major “safety net” hospital providing care to low-income and minority residents.
A woman who identified herself as Elsa, a nurse at BMC and an SEIU member, asked the elected officials how they planned to raise revenues to keep the medical center operational, and make up for the budget cuts that will affect vulnerable people from the community.
In his response, Patrick noted that BMC is one of the few entities in the state with significant reserves — the hospital has approximately $400 million saved, according to the governor — and that the health care industry is the single largest recipient of state revenues.
The governor announced in March that BMC would receive more than $140 million in federal stimulus funding over the next two years, including $64 million this year for services it provided in fiscal year 2008 to low-income patients. BMC President Elaine Ullian told The Boston Globe at the time that the hospital has suffered significant cuts in state reimbursement for treating the poor, that it expects more cuts, and that the stimulus influx wouldn’t be enough to close its budget gap.
The governor had initially planned to host his own Boston-area community forum on the budget last week as part of a series of meetings being held throughout May, but decided to double up with Chang-Díaz. The Patrick administration is hosting 36 community forums across the Commonwealth, moderated by cabinet secretaries, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and Patrick himself.
Panelists took a number of questions from community members, who formed a long line stretching down the center aisle in the Roxbury YMCA gymnasium.
One man expressed his concern over the $17 million in cuts to substance abuse programs, a slash of more than 20 percent to the allowance for such programs. Two young women decried the elimination of funding for anti-violence programs and cuts to youth jobs and education initiatives.
“We’re the future — why are you cutting from us?” they asked.
Introducing herself as “a product of METCO” — the heralded Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity — one woman asked about the planned $3.1 million in cuts to the program and the impact it would have on residents of the Second Suffolk, stressing her concern for others’ ability to achieve through the program as she did.
Chang-Díaz said she plans to file an amendment to the Senate budget to “match the House level of funding” for METCO, a $1.5 million increase that would bring the total budget allocation for the program to $20 million.
“METCO was cut disproportionately compared to other educational programs,” Chang-Díaz told the Banner in a phone interview.
As for bridging the $5 billion budget gap, Patrick said he plans to institute $883 million in cuts and savings, use $1.4 billion in stimulus money and tap the state’s reserve fund for $586 million, and raise $587 million in revenue. The increased revenues are expected to come from proposals to raise the sales, income, meals and hotel taxes by 1 percent each, in addition to the plan to add 19 cents per gallon to the gas tax.
“Massachusetts is in the midst of an unprecedented fiscal crisis that has made painful budget cuts to important programs unavoidable,” said deputy press secretary Kimberly A. Haberlin. “… The governor will continue to engage with the public and work with his partners in the Legislature on solutions to help the Commonwealth bridge to a better tomorrow.”
As the monthlong series of community meetings moderated by Patrick administration officials draws to a close, the state's Web site offers more information about why it launched them, what it aimed to accomplish with them, and where the inclusionary process will go from here. More »
Through its detailed analysis and frequent policy briefings, this nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group helps readers who may be unfamiliar with the often-confusing language of budgets to understand what choices and decisions legislators make in crafting state spending plans. More »
It wasn’t so long ago that Massachusetts seemed to be swimming in cash.
Month after month, the state raked in tax revenues far ahead of
predictions. By the end of the 2008 fiscal year, the state had
collected more than $1 billion over its original estimate. Then,
suddenly, the bottom fell out. More »
It wasn’t so long ago that Massachusetts seemed to be swimming in cash. Month after month, the state raked in tax revenues far ahead of predictions. By the end of the 2008 fiscal year, the state had collected more than $1 billion over its original estimate. Then, suddenly, the bottom fell out. More »
But two months after Gov. Deval Patrick’s announcement of significant budget cuts and spending controls to close a state budget gap of more than $1 billion, the question remains: How long will needs be met? More »