Session ends with wins for local legislators

August 27, 2010
By

David Taber

JP Delegation: Tough road ahead

From laws governing public access to felons’ criminal records, to protections for homeowners facing foreclosure and an at least temporary reprieve on casino gambling, the recently ended legislative session was, by their own accounts, a successful one for lawmakers representing JP.

Looking ahead to next year, the JP delegation—state reps. Liz Malia and Jeffrey Sánchez and state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz—all said that, with federal stimulus funding drying up, they have grave concerns about the health of the state budget.

“Next year we are going over a cliff…I don’t think anyone has a plan for what to do,” Chang-Díaz said, speaking at a lightly attended public forum during the Ward 19 Democratic Committee meeting at the Nate Smith House on Lamartine St. Aug. 2.

Chang-Díaz and Malia attended the forum, and the Gazette spoke to Sánchez—who was on vacation in the first week of August—by phone following the event.

One thing all three of them advocated for loudly last year, and more quietly this year, is a bump in the state income tax. A gradual rollback in the income tax from 5.95 percent to 5.3 percent, starting in 1999, has left the state with an over $20 billion “structural deficit.” Essentially, that means the state raises $2 billion a year less than it would have at the old income tax rate. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (www.massbudget.org), the state would have raised an additional $1.4 billion in 2009 under the old tax rate.

Even with stimulus funding and other tax increases—most notably, a raise in the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent—about $3 billion has been cut from the state budget in 2009 and 2010, according to the Mass. Budget and Policy Center.

All three legislators advocated for raising the income tax at a well-attended pubic form in May 2009. At that forum, Chang-Díaz, in response to descriptions of income tax hikes as a taboo subject, memorably said, “We need to start yelling sex in church,” and went on to garner 11 of 39 votes when she sponsored a senate bill that would have restored it to 5.95 percent.

While there was not much support for an income tax increase, or other tax increases, this year, Chang Díaz said she holds out hope for the next session. “The upside is that it’s not an election year next year. Hopefully, there will be a little more space” for that discussion, she said.

Capital gains and dividend taxes, as well as “tobacco tax loop-holes” for types of tobacco that are not smoked, and internet sales tax, are some other possible avenues for revenue generation, Chang-Díaz said. On the Internet sales tax, “We need to engage our federal partners. [Untaxed internet sales] erode the value of our sales tax,” Chang-Díaz said.

This year was one of “defensive wins” as far as the budget is concerned, the state senator said.

Failure to pass legislation on a revenue generation and jobs creation strategy all three legislators say they are opposed to—casino gambling—could be counted as one of those defensive wins.

Malia told the audience that she appreciated that the JP delegation has been “three votes, consistently, against casinos.”

Malia heads the House Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse. She said she is opposed to raising revenue by exploiting people’s addictions, and described the possibility of legalizing slot machines—a proposal strongly backed by House Speaker Robert Deleo—as “egregious.”

She also questioned whether passage of the bill, which would be the first step in a multi-year process of developing resort casinos, would play a significant role in the state’s short-term economic development. “We haven’t looked at other places in the economy where we could create jobs…There has been no debate,” she said.

“The other thing is, love it or hate it, our lottery is the most successful in the country, and it provides a huge amount of resources for local aid” to cities and towns in the Commonwealth, Malia said. Casino gambling would likely eat into lottery revenues, she said.

Proposals for legalizing a limited number of what Gov. Deval Patrick has described as “high-end resort casinos” passed in both the house and senate without a vote from any of the JP lawmakers. But the house version also included the sanction of a limited number of slot machine parlors, which Patrick opposed, and he ended up vetoing a final bill that included slots.

The state legislature did not have time to attempt an override of that veto before the legislative session ended. There is a chance that the legislature may be called back into formal session to authorize the disbursement of federal funds recently approved by the federal government, and may take the casino bill up again in those sessions.

The legislature may also take it up again next session. Asked whether he considers the casino bill off the table, Sánchez said, “No.”

Chang-Díaz said that “defensive wins” in this year’s budget include blocking cuts to the state’s METCO program, which gives urban youths the opportunity to enroll at suburban schools and to funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and emergency food assistance.

“People talk about fraud and waste—they say, ‘just cut there’—but [we end up] talking about emergency food assistance,” Chang-Díaz said.

She also noted that, thanks in large part to concerted advocacy by youths, legislators were able to secure a $1 million increase for youth summer jobs. That line item was halved last year from $8 million to $4 million, but this year it was funded to the tune of $5 million, she said.

The three legislators also had some things to crow about. “The legislature has taken on things no one thought we would in 30 years,” Sánchez told the Gazette, listing off pension, ethics, transportation and Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reform. Reforms to the CORI system mean it is harder for employers to access information about the criminal records of convicted felons who have served their time and are seeking employment.

“Speaker [Deleo] really came through on the CORI bill, Malia said at the ward committee forum. “I think it is one of the most important issues we are going to see.”

Chang-Díaz, though, gave Malia some of the credit. “Hats off to Liz. She has been working on it for years,” the state senator said.

Malia and Chang-Díaz also singled out new protections for homeowners facing foreclosure as a major accomplishment for the session.

But Malia said there is still further to go on both those issues: CORI reform should be followed up quickly by sentencing reform, she said, and some form of foreclosure protection should be extended to tenants in foreclosed properties.

Sánchez, who is the House chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, also pointed to accomplishments he helped facilitate through that committee. Those include a school nutrition bill that, among other things, removes soda machines from public schools and a prescription drug monitoring program that makes it harder for prescription drug addicts to “doctor shop.”

Health care cost containment will rank high among the issues that occupy his attention in the coming session, Sánchez said. That is assuming he is re-elected. Both Sánchez and Chang-Díaz face Democratic primary challengers this year. [See related article.]

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly stated the number of members in the state senate. There are 40 state senators in Massachusetts. The senate president regularly abstains from voting.