How to Spend $21.3-Billion of Your Dollars

It is, once again, budget season. And it continues, at least, until the last day of June, when the state's spending should be in final shape, approved by the Governor, and ready to go into effect July first.

Should. Because last year it didn't get signed, sealed and delivered until November. This year, everyone is hopeful that there won't be any similar deadlocks, and that the budget will be completed on a timely basis. All $21.3-billion of it.

The Governor's budget, 450 pages thick, is on our desks. It's called "House One." But, it's just the start, because the House of Representatives has to prepare our budget. We're just now starting our Ways and Means Committee hearings, accepting input from a variety of organizations and departments, all seeking budget increases.

After the House approves a budget, probably in late April, the Senate will prepare a budget. Then, a conference committee argues out the differences between House and Senate, both branches have to approve the compromise, and the Governor has to give final approval. Of course, the Governor can veto line items, but those vetoes can, in turn, be overridden by House and Senate members.

Now, I don't know about you, but I can't even envision a pile of dollar bills or ten-dollar bills or thousand-dollar bills that would total $21.3 billion. It sounds, well, huge! But, all things being relative, it's actually just a 2.8 percent increase over last year's state budget. And it's darn hard to figure out how to spend it.

If the State were going to pay off its debts, in full, some $15.2-billion would have to be spent to pay off bonds and notes. Just like people don't pay off their credit cards, or mortgages, in full each month of year, the State gradually pays off its debts, to the tune of $1.3-billion a year.

Let's look at some of the FY2001 budget highlights, remembering that this is the House One version and subject to change. Most of the calls and requests I get focus on education and health care and human services. So, I'll start there.

Education. There's a $132-million increase over the current year's budget in direct education aid for cities and towns, an additional $8 million to fully fund transportation

for regional school districts, and $11.6-million to reduce class size (Westfield would receive $106,742 under this new program).

The budget would increase the cap on charter schools, from 50 to 120; strengthen the role of principals to allow them to determine quality of school personnel; and allow parents in under performing schools to choose another school or school district.

Health Care. The budget increases access and payments for dental care for children, additional health care for the elderly, higher Medicaid reimbursements for doctors in community health centers, and increased wages for nursing home staffs.

Altogether, it includes some $70.7 million in new funding for health care programs, plus another $5 million for expanding MassHealth. It also cuts spending for the tobacco control prevention program by $10 million.

There would be a basic "rearranging" of several health programs, with some $41-million worth of programs like pharmacy assistance and disease prevention, removed from the general budget and paid for with the tobacco windfall money. Other programs, funded by tobacco money this year, would be dropped-programs like newborn home visitation, improvements to the state's mental health hospitals, and prison substance abuse treatments.

Human Services. Additional salary increases for direct care workers earning less than $30,000 a year, more money for domestic violence, $1,500 payments for Gold Star Mothers, shifting Department of Youth Services to Public Safety, and establishing a new department of children, families and learning, are just some of the highlights.

The budget would also end work exemptions for welfare recipients with children 2 to 5, and make sure that only licensed medical practitioners administer medication to children in residential programs.

There's also additional funding to increase services in the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and Lord knows they need it; to pay for a new State Police Recruit Class, valued at $4.3-million; decrease the backlog of court cases by adding four new appellate judges;

Local institutions, like Westfield State and Western Mass Hospital would receive increases in funding relative to the entire budget, between 2 and 3 percent.

There's some bad news on the state's financial front-the state's retirement fund has been under funded, due to computer snafus and errors over many many years, so we'll have to come up with $2 to $4-billion over the next dozen or twenty years. And payments to that end are included in the budget as well.

There are several budget items and outside sections that I am not in agreement with. For example, allowing private employers to hire prisoners who would work, for prevailing wages, inside the prison walls, then be eligible for workers comp and unemployment if hurt or when they leave prison. There's only $50 million for Chapter 90, which pays for our roads and bridges, when I think we need three times that much.

If you want all the details, you'll find the entire budget on the Internet at http://www.state.ma.us/bb/fy2001H1/budget_recommendations/default.htm.

But, as I warned earlier, the Governor's budget is just a start. We have a lot of hearings and debates and arguments and concessions and vetoes and overrides to go before it's all over.

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