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Dems and Greens unite on state economy

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The Massachusetts economy is in trouble, according to the Cambridge Democrats. And if the budgeting structure doesn't change, the Massachusetts economy will continue to be in trouble. Six speakers, including three elected Democratic legislators and Green Party gubernatorial nominee Jill Stein, presented their views on the subject at a Cambridge Democratic City Committee panel entitled, "State Budget Crisis: Can We Cut Our Way Out?" The panel discussion was held at the Cambridge YWCA on March 12.

Rep. Marie St. Fleur (D-Dorchester) set the tone for the panel, stating, "I wish I had good news, but there isn't.... We haven't bottomed out yet. We have a structural problem and must deal with that as the heart of the issue."

Noah Berger, executive director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (formerly TEAM), says the source of the $3 billion budget gap is declining tax revenues due to tax cuts. "Total tax cuts were $5 billion. The net discounting new increases was about $3 billion, which is the total budget gap." Berger says we should not believe Gov. Romney's rhetoric that spending is out of control and caused the budget gap: "State spending as a share of personal income went down in the 1990s. Massachusetts' spending ranks 45th in the U.S. as a percent of income. If we had the same tax rates as West Virginia - hardly a high tax state - we'd make up $2 billion in revenue."

Gov. Romney's proposed cuts start with $349 million in unrestricted local aid, $60 million in education cuts and $64 million in aid to seniors with low income. Alan Clayton Matthews, a University of Massachusetts economist, says the proposed cuts have "big effects on K-12 and on higher education. Our economy depends on an educated workforce. Massachusetts is a high cost-of-living state, and must be high-wage and high-education. That's the only way we can compete. Ed Reform must continue and expand - not just level-fund it."

Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) points out that Gov. Romney has offered insufficient specifics: "When we ask the governor what will be cut, he responds with his PowerPoint presentations."

Stephen Collins, executive director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition, says "We need to focus on the '4 R's': Reductions; Reforms; Reserves; and Revenue. We need to get these last two R's on the table." Collins suggests maintaining old taxes before taking a No-New-Taxes pledge, intoning "All we are saying, is give revenue a chance."

Sen. Steve Tolman (D-Cambridge and Watertown) drew the biggest applause of the evening by suggesting "The House and Senate both know we can't play chicken - we need to cut like Democrats." Tolman points out the human cost: "It's not just line items and numbers - it's people and their lives."

Tolman issued a call to action for concerned citizens: "Come to the April 1 rally at the White House - we need more than 5,000 people. We have to call our representatives, and rally together - that's the only way to face this pitfall."

Jill Stein, the Green Party's candidate for governor last year, attended the panel as a representative of her new organization, the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities. She made her presentation from an audience seat off the formal panel, as a compromise solution to mitigate residual feelings from the gubernatorial race. It was nevertheless a breakthrough in Green-Democrat relations that she presented at a Democratic Party event.

Stein's presentation focused on the inequity in the distribution of recent tax cuts: "The change in the tax burden, as a percent of income, in the last decade has gone up by 0.2 percent for lower income groups and has gone down by 1.5 percent for top income earners. The distribution of tax cuts per person provided $52 for the lowest 20 percent of earners and $32,045 for the top 20 percent of earners. That's not consistent with any notion of fairness."

This reporter noticed that Stein and the elected officials complained about the Romney cuts, but offered only general solutions rather than specifics. Two non-elected Democrats did offer specific proposals: Collins suggested "opening the Health Care Trust Fund - $500 million from the tobacco settlement." And Berger offered several proposals: "$1.9 billion from restoring the personal income tax to previous levels; $750 million from raising the sales tax to 6 percent; and several $100 millions from restoring the corporate income tax to 16 percent".

The three elected officials offered no such specific proposals - they might do so to earn the right to criticize Romney's lack of specificity. Stein offered no proposals either, so this reporter asked her to do so. She responded: "We could get half a billion from closing corporate tax loopholes: corporate sales tax exemptions, sales tax on luxury housing, and tax loopholes for polluters like the no sales tax on pesticides." Stein offered some larger visions also: "We should adjust the 'no-tax threshold' for the Earned Income Tax Credit and other rates and exemptions, which would create a more progressive structure. But to implement a proper progressive tax, we'd need a Constitutional Amendment, since Massachusetts currently has a flat tax on income." Steve Collins of the Human Services Coalition points out that "Jill Stein has a beautiful vision but it ain't gonna happen in this fiscal year."

In conclusion, citizen input on budget issues right now would be timely and potentially influential. The Massachusetts Democratic Party recognizes the need to humanize the effects of the budget cuts and requests personal stories about those effects at policy@MassDems.org. The panelists concurred that even though Cambridge reps like Alice Wolf are strong proponents for Cambridge citizens, they need evidence provided by citizens to make their arguments to Romney and the rest of the decision-makers. You can locate and contact your state legislator at (617) 727-2828.

"Jesse Gordon is a Green Party member who lives in Cambridge."

-- Please note: The by-line above was published in the Cambridge Chronicle on March 26, 2003. It is incorrect -- Jesse Gordon is a registered Democrat and an Associate Member of the Cambridge City Democratic Committee. Mr. Gordon has never been a member of the Green Party, and the above by-line was mistakenly chosen by the Chronicle's editors.

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