The Massachusetts budget crisis is not just about money. It’s about quality of life, compassion, and our values as a community. Across the state, that community is unraveling as teachers, police, and firefighters are laid off and commitments are abandoned in health care, affordable housing, education, the environment, and the safety net for families in distress. The people of Massachusetts deserve better: not across-the-board cuts that dismantle our community, but solutions that strengthen it.
Unfortunately, those solutions have not emerged from the leadership on Beacon Hill. The Legislature, in fact, has abdicated its responsibilities by handing its budget authority over to Governor Romney. Instead of engaging our problems, we are seeing an all-too-familiar blame game: The Republican governor blames the Democratic Legislature for overspending, and the Legislature – yielding to the governor despite their veto power – can then conveniently blame him for cutting vital programs. This script needs to change to preserve the health and vitality of our communities.
It is time to solve the structural problems producing the budget crisis.
Political leaders have insisted that massive service cuts, moderated by a few painful and inadequate tax increases, are the only way to balance the budget. But there are other possibilities that should be put on the table.
Many of these possibilities involve taking back some of the generous tax giveaways that legislators have given to their major campaign donors. For this reason, the leadership for such solutions is unlikely to come from compromised politicians. The people themselves must lead the way.
To accomplish this, citizen groups are speaking up to bring needed new solutions into the public debate, solutions that lie outside the narrow political spectrum that lies between Speaker Finneran and Governor Romney.
One of these groups, the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, has assembled a broad set of proposals to close unfair tax loopholes for the well-connected. This would both restore fairness to the tax system and raise the revenues necessary to support vital programs essential for healthy communities.
According to the coalition, a responsible solution to the budget crisis requires that we: 1) act immediately to fully fund the vital services that affect health, safety, and education; 2) create a fair tax system that doesn’t balance the budget on the backs of poor and working families; and 3) begin to implement more efficient, effective programs that reduce costs and improve services.
Such programs might include single payer universal health care, home-care options for frail elders, conservation and renewable energy, and treatment for drug abuse instead of incarceration. The coalition cautions against unwise budget cuts that increase long-term costs, or shift expenses onto local communities and individuals that can’t afford them.
While calling for innovative programs to reduce future costs, the coalition calls for immediate new revenues to meet urgent budget needs. It points to a variety of revenue sources to consider – totaling over $2.6 billion annually – that can raise revenue fairly, eliminating the disproportionate burden on average and low income taxpayers. By adding some of these to the budget mix, vital programs can be preserved and recent cuts in essential services restored.
These revenue options fall into three categories: The first involves closing tax loopholes for corporations and wealthy individuals. Corporate taxes have declined by over 75 percent in Massachusetts over the past three decades as a portion of state revenues, while corporate profits markedly increased.
Closing these loopholes will increase fairness since the richest 1 percent, who are major beneficiaries of such loopholes, currently pay only half as much of their income in state taxes as the poor.
Other revenue can be produced by ending the sales tax exemptions for luxury purchases (in particular, luxury housing) and selected services (such as advertising, accounting, legal services, lobbying) largely used by wealthier taxpayers. Expanding the sales tax base – currently limited to manufactured items – to include services is becoming essential in an economy now predominantly based on services. Average and lower income taxpayers should be exempt from such new sales taxes.
Finally, we can begin to use ”smart taxes” that tax harmful corporate pollution and waste instead of productivity. Pollution taxes not only generate revenue, they save money by discouraging harmful practices that result in health care costs, lost time at work, pollution cleanup, and global warming. They also encourage more efficient, cleaner production, and urgently needed independence from fossil fuels.
Obviously, proposals for fairer tax policy will face strong opposition on Beacon Hill, where protecting tax breaks for wealthy campaign donors has long been the key to a successful political career. However, the blows being inflicted against health, hope, and higher community values are creating a groundswell for change. The voices of the people are about to join the budget debate.
Dr. Jill Stein, president of Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, was the Green Party candidate for governor in 2002. Chuck Turner is a Boston city councilor.
This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 2/10/2003.