All We're Talking About is Money

All I can think about is a movie, "The Color of Money." And I haven't even seen the movie. Perhaps it's because money was the only thing people were talking about in the State House this week.

Governor Jane Swift released her 2003 Fiscal Year Budget this past Wednesday. All 355 pages and $23.5-Billion of it. Which, by the way, is $3,700 for every man, woman and child in the Commonwealth.

There's probably something in there that you don't like. Or, wouldn't like if you knew about it. Some money not being spent on something you want. If you really want the details it's posted at www.mass.gov/fad/fy2003h1

But, don't worry. At least not yet. The budget will change substantially before it is finalized, hopefully by July 1st when the new fiscal year officially begins.

Democrats claim that the budget will change so much that the Governor's budget is merely a good doorstop. That may be an exaggeration but both House and Senate committees will make major changes. 

Then, a conference committee of three representatives and three senators will iron out the differences. The Governor will veto parts of the final version. And, those vetoes are subject to overrides by the legislature. 

All, hopefully, before the new fiscal year begins. And the budget should be on time this year. For one thing, it's an election year, and anyone running for office wants no part of the late budget debacle we had last year. Additionally, the legislature ends its official and financial business on July 31st this year.

But. And this is a big "but." The good times are over, thanks to the recession.

The Governor's budget is just a 3 percent increase over the current year. Many, many line items will see cuts or, at best, be level funded thanks to mandatory increases in sections like Medicaid (which, alone, will see a 10 percent increase and which makes up 23.4 percent of the budget) and education.

So, if there is something that you want included in the budget, now is the time to let your Representative know about it. But, more importantly, if you know of an area where cuts can be made, let me know about that as well.

The Governor has already made cuts, including the anti-smoking program money, DARE, school reimbursements for charter school students, to name a few. The Governor has asked her own cabinet to cut $55-million in expenses. But they're just a drop in the bucket in a year when we may come up $2-billion short on the current budget.

Where will we get extra money to close the gap? From the cigaret lawsuit trust fund? An extra tax on a pack of cigarets? Lottery proceeds? Failure to make pension fund payments? Again, all ideas are welcome.

The same day we got the Governor's budget the legislature was scheduled to tackle a $421-million supplemental to provide more money for everything from the Holyoke Soldiers Home to snow and ice removal. The bill didn't come to the floor and has been postponed until next week. Again, due to a budget deficit and sharp decline in state revenues. No one has come up with the ultimate idea on how to fund it.

Wednesday was also the day Speaker Tom Finneran had an unusual joint caucus to talk about those revenue shortfalls and the budget deficit we're facing. Focus was on how to save money, and where to find more money to spend, since state law requires a balanced budget. And, if we don't make cuts, the Governor has the power to make them.

Finneran echoed the words of Michael Widmer, from Mass Taxpayers Foundation, who addressed the legislators on Tuesday and again on Wednesday.

The message was that the combination of declining tax revenues, the voter-approved income tax cut, and soaring health care costs are putting us in financial jeopardy. That the budget deficit will continue into the next year. That legislators will have to trim the state's spending. And that constituents and city and town officials will not be happy.

Or, as the Speaker summed, the state's financial situation "is as bad as it's ever been." And added, "The day of reckoning is here."

Or, more succinctly, one Representative stood up to say, and I quote, "There's a shitstorm coming."

Bottom line. Everyone wants more services. More roads. More employees. More beds. More…everything. And it's hard to ignore the needs of veterans, the elderly, the homeless, the retarded and the mentally ill. Students and colleges, the pension fund. Everyone has a worthy cause.

But, the money isn't coming in to pay for what we have. Some tough decisions, some unpopular decisions, will have to be made in the months to come.

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