For yet another year, the Massachusetts legislature has been unable to approve a budget on time. By finishing five months late, the huge cuts in human services programs made necessary by the economic decline will be concentrated in a shorter period of time. Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham ’72 and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran bear responsibility for the undemocratic, closed-door negotiations that resulted in this flawed budget.
The reality of the recession, coupled with their inattention, has left the state with the undesirable position of having to make drastic spending reductions in social services for the next fiscal year. Because much of the budget is non-discretionary, there are few areas where cuts can be made. State leaders are now torn between cutting programs that provide crucial services to needy populations, such as the mentally ill, learning disabled and AIDS patients or slashing preventative programs such as teen anti-smoking campaigns and cancer awareness initiatives.
Although we understand that cuts are difficult to make, we support acting Governor Jane M. Swift’s position that cuts in prevention programs are currently more appropriate than cuts in services to those who need them most. While we understand that prevention programs can ultimately save money by warding off future health crises, the reality is that something must be cut, and the weak should not be the first to be abandoned. Massachusetts should never deny health care to those who need it in the place of producing a public service announcement.
The decision to draw $800 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund is appropriate in this time of economic crisis. Other measures, such as expanding public works projects to combat unemployment, should be employed so that the impact on Massachusetts families can be minimized, even if it leads to deficit spending.
Additionally, it is wise to delay the implementation of last year’s referendum lowering the income tax from 5.85 percent to 5 percent. Voters who supported the measure were casting their ballots under very different economic circumstances, and it is the responsibility of our leaders to make sure that policy is able to be flexible enough to adapt to completely unforeseen events.
Now the budget is in the hands of Swift, we call on her to exercise the careful deliberation that the Legislature lacked. We implore her to make the difficult cuts wisely, being sure that worthwhile programs do not end up suffering while needless ones go untouched as the result of pork barrel legislative priorities. One such example is the attempt by lawmakers to quietly gut the budgets of the Office of the Inspector General and the State Ethics Commission and blame it on the recession. Swift should be able to see through these self-interested maneuvers, and work to fashion a budget that will evaluate all programs on a meritocratic basis.
The current mess can be alleviated, but only if the State Legislature stops playing politics and begins to demonstrate real leadership.