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Wanted: political leadership

The messy state budget shows just how weak our political ‘leaders’ are

THERE ARE THREE people in charge on Beacon Hill: Governor Jane Swift, House Speaker Tom Finneran, and Senate president Tom Birmingham. If the recent budget debacle taught us anything about these politicians, it’s this: they’re weak.

Sure, Swift publicly humiliated Finneran and Birmingham into passing a budget by saying if they didn’t do so by last week, she’d file her own. But the budget was 144 days overdue. Where was Swift the day after the original July 1 deadline was missed? Or the week after that? And the month after that?

Even more telling, though, is the way Finneran and Birmingham used their considerable "power": the budget passed last week is an embarrassment. Or it should be to any thinking person in the Commonwealth. Take two of the cuts enacted to save money: gutting the Clean Elections Law and slashing funds targeted for the Department of Mental Retardation.

The first move is a slap to Bay State voters who overwhelmingly passed the Clean Elections Law in 1998. The second is a slap to our most vulnerable citizens: mentally retarded adults. Ironically, both budget cuts may be overturned by court rulings in the coming weeks.

A lawsuit has been filed by Clean Elections advocates, including gubernatorial candidates Warren Tolman of the Democratic Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party, to force the state to fund the measure. After all, if Finneran and Birmingham don’t like the law, they have a legal remedy: hold a vote to repeal the measure. If two-thirds of the legislature approve the repeal, the law could be killed — legally. That would, however, require real political leadership. And few believe the votes for repeal are there. Hence the cowardly, back-door maneuvering to kill the law. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments on the lawsuit December 3.

As for the DMR cuts, they’re going to lead to legal action against the state (see "Picking on the Neediest," This Just In, page 7). In July, US District Court judge Douglas Woodlock ruled that the state violated the federal Medicaid Act by keeping mentally retarded adults on years-long waiting lists for housing and support services. The state agreed to spend $114 million over five years to eliminate the waiting list (see "Perseverance Pays Off," This Just In, December 28, 2000). In light of the newly imposed cuts on the DMR, which are sure to eliminate the state’s ability to meet its obligations under the court-approved agreement, Judge Woodlock may very well find the state in contempt of court. Daily fines could ensue. In other words, in no way has this issue gone away. The bottom line? All Finneran and Birmingham have accomplished by including these cuts in their budget is a delay in paying the piper. Are we to believe that this is fiscal discipline? Or political leadership? Please.

All that said, there aren’t many places to look for cuts in the state budget. As Jim St. George, executive director of the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts (TEAM), puts it, "The one thing you can say about budgeting in Massachusetts in the ’90s is that it was pretty darn conservative." Most of the line items in the state budget are untouchables. Education, Medicaid, and debt service make up the bulk of the budget. There’s simply not much wiggle room when it comes to scaling back spending.

In fact, the only place to cut is human services. And that’s what Finneran and Birmingham did. But they didn’t have to. At least not this year.

As the Phoenix pointed out two weeks ago (see "Deficit Politics," Editorial, November 16), our budget builders had options. The state has considerable resources that could have been tapped to avoid the devastating human-services cuts imposed by this year’s budget: spending all the tobacco-settlement money coming in this year; tapping the rainy-day reserves to the tune of $800 million; skipping payments of $100 million toward the state’s pension fund this year; and delaying implementation of the income-tax cut passed by voters last year.

The most interesting of these is the last — delaying the tax cut. It would take true political courage to talk about taxes in any meaningful way. But we’re not going to get that from our "leaders." In fact, Swift threatened to veto any delay in the tax cut, but Massachusetts ranks 42nd out of the 50 states in terms of taxes collected by state and local authorities per $1000 of income. That’s right: 42nd. The nickname Taxachusetts simply doesn’t apply any more.

True political leaders wouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of our neediest citizens. They’d ask our richest citizens to step up to the plate. Specifically, if Finneran and Birmingham had any leadership abilities at all, they’d be talking about reforming the capital-gains-tax cut passed in 1994 in a sleazy deal between former governor William Weld and the state legislature. In brief, Weld promised not to veto a 55 percent legislative pay raise in exchange for House and Senate approval of the capital-gains-tax cut. The overly generous tax cut costs the state $500 million in lost revenue annually. Who benefits most? The richest one percent of taxpayers, according to TEAM. Why are our "leaders" so willing to sacrifice the needs of our poorest citizens but reluctant to ask anything of our wealthiest?

In the early 1980s, after Proposition 2 1/2 passed and cities and towns realized that their local tax revenue would be slashed in half, legislative leaders blithely ignored their predicament. They came up with a budget that failed to include additional aid to offset the losses incurred by Prop 2 1/2. Suburban legislators went ballistic and came up with an alternative budget, dubbed "the better budget" that included local aid — enough to ease the shock of the transition to Prop 2 1/2. The second budget passed.

It’s impossible to imagine a scenario today in which state reps and senators, chafing under the control of Finneran and Birmingham, would do something similar. All of which speaks to a horrendous lack of political leadership on Beacon Hill.

Swift, Finneran, and Birmingham have a lock on political power on Beacon Hill — not that they do much good with it. While we can’t vote Finneran and Birmingham out of their leadership positions, they can be voted out of office. As can Swift — along with our individual state reps and senators who refuse to stand up to the Speaker and Senate president.

If our elected officials won’t exercise political leadership, voters should. Otherwise, we will continue to get what we deserve.

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Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001

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