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A BLOATED FISH OF A STATE BUDGET

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

June 9, 2002

If only budgets danced for everyone the way they dance for the Massachusetts Legislature. Then it wouldn't matter if you were laid off, or if your business went through a rough patch, or if the bear market ate into your retirement income. You would never have to cut your budget -- not even if your income was down 12 percent from last year. You could even raise your budget! Spending more money would be no problem: Just snap your fingers and make somebody else pay the bill.

Well, if grandma had wheels, she'd be a tea trolley. And if the House and Senate had any integrity, the state budget wouldn't be climbing by hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when state revenues have been sinking. In the real world, people spend fewer dollars when they earn fewer dollars. But on Beacon Hill, spending fewer dollars is never an option. Why should the state have to make do with less when it is so much easier to force taxpayers to make do with less?

And so in the next few weeks, the Legislature intends to shred the voter-enacted income tax rollback, wipe out the voter-enacted charitable deduction, and slash the personal exemption by 25 percent.

That's for starters. Legislators also plan to hike taxes on capital gains (thereby punishing the "rich") and to hike taxes on cigarettes (thereby punishing the poor). They will arrange for speeding tickets, already among the nation's steepest, to grow steeper still. They will jack up the price of a driver's license and car registration (if the House gets its way) and jack up the fees for nearly all court transactions (if the Senate gets its way).

And in an unusually horrid bit of fiscal cruelty, both branches, egged on by the Swift administration, are readying a new tax on elderly citizens who commit the crime of not becoming a public charge. Any resident of a nursing home in Massachusetts who pays her own way -- i.e., who doesn't stick Medicaid with the cost of her care -- will be forced to pay the state $3,300 a year. The chief justification for this new fee is that it would raise $145 million -- and the state is sure it needs that money more than old people in nursing homes do.

"This budget is unequivocally balanced," crowed Senator Mark Montigny, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, when his budget came out last week. "We've cut costs wherever we can." Far from apologizing for knifing the public with higher taxes and fees, he actually praised the budget as one that "didn't gouge taxpayers." Reasonable people should be "relieved," he said, "and I hope some people would even be pleased."

Pleased? Pleased that when countless Bay State citizens have to tighten their belts, Montigny & Co. draft a budget exceeding the one the Legislature passed last fall by more than half a billion dollars? Pleased that they have the gall to lay that bloated fish on the table and claim, "We've cut costs wherever we can?"

Well, let's see.

They didn't cut the Quinn Bill, a $100 million a year giveaway that pays fat bonuses to police officers who take dubious "college" courses, often at worthless diploma mills. Not only did Montigny & Co. not cut this notorious waste, they increased it.

They didn't repeal the outrageous Section 10 scam that makes payments to long-term state employees who claim they were "fired" from their jobs -- including politicians who lose an election. This cash cow pays the ex-employee about one-third of his former salary until he qualifies for a regular pension at 55. More than 1,100 of these payouts have been approved since 1990, and in numerous cases the employee collecting the cash appears to have resigned voluntarily. The public loses tens of millions of dollars to this scam. But Montigny's budget leaves it intact.

They did nothing to unload the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay, a money-losing rathole that the state has to spend millions of dollars a year to bail out. And they continue to flush good money after bad down an even bigger rathole in South Boston -- the useless new convention center that will cost more than $800 million to build. Every dollar spent on that white elephant is a dollar that will never be recouped. But rather than cut its losses now, the Legislature just keeps on spending.

"We've cut costs wherever we can." Really? Then why does the Metropolitan District Commission still own and operate two golf courses? Surely the Legislature doesn't consider golf to be an essential government service -- and just think how much money the commonwealth could realize if it put the Ponkapoag and Leo J. Martin courses up for sale.

From the pointless Emergency Finance Board to the silly Commission on the Status of Women, from the minuscule health-insurance contributions paid by government employees to the mindless overspending on education "reform," the proposed Senate budget is a monument to blubber and waste.

Legislators would never act so heedlessly with their own money. Why do we let them act this way with ours? <

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Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
His E-mail address is -
jacoby@globe.com
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