Thursday, February 28, 2013

My View: Raising Taxes Is Not The Solution To Fixing Our State’s Transportation System

Today, we present the fourth installment in our series dedicated to the eight public hearings for the Commonwealth’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget. This edition of My View comes to us from Representative Vinny deMacedo.

Yesterday, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to have the Secretary of Transportation, Richard Davey, and the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, Richard Sullivan, come before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means to talk about the Governor’s proposals for the Fiscal Year 2014 budget.

The interesting aspect of Secretary Davey’s testimony was that he wanted to highlight the importance of transportation and why a world class transportation system is needed in order to grow Massachusetts’ economy. During his testimony, the Secretary not only emphasized the need to expand the South Coast rail line from New Bedford to Boston, but talked about the necessity of a train from Western Massachusetts to New York City. Both very interesting proposals, however, with staggering price tags and added maintenance costs, I do not believe that the economic benefit would outweigh the economic costs.

Understanding the importance of an efficient transportation system, I also recognize that we have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of the Commonwealth. There is a whole host of things we can do to make our transportation system better if money were no object; however, money is an object and raising the income tax is not something that is palatable to me or my constituents. I commend the Secretary for his passion for transportation, but I still am not convinced that raising taxes is the solution to fixing Massachusetts’ transportation system.

As we reach the halfway point in this year’s public hearings to discuss the Commonwealth’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it is clear that the Governor is pushing very hard to sell his proposals which, by his own words, is an ambitious plan. Agency after agency continues to come before the Joint Committee to make their case for why their respective agency can’t do its job sufficiently or effectively without an increase in taxes. The Governor has even gone so far as to employ a Washington D.C. tactic which is aimed at putting pressure on legislators by releasing district-by-district maps that reflect how much communities will receive in extra money by raising taxes statewide. I can only speak for myself, but I believe that Democratic and Republican legislators are not convinced about the Governor’s plan, and neither are their constituents!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My View: A Budget That Continues To Grow Should Be Able To Deliver On What Is Best For Our Municipalities

Today, we present the third installment in our series dedicated to the eight public hearings for the Commonwealth’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget. This edition of My View comes to us from Representative Geoff Diehl.

Yesterday’s third Fiscal Year 2014 Ways and Means hearing featured state Education agencies and stakeholders, as well as the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) analysis regarding Local Aid. Everyone reading The Capitol View is aware, I’m sure, of how critical the funding of Chapter 70 for education and UGGA (Local Aid) is for the cities and towns we live in. As a former member of my town’s finance committee, the continual cuts by the state were the tipping point for my decision to run for office. I join my Republican colleagues in our ongoing quest to find ways to meet the continued challenge to funding in both these areas without the need to further impact taxpayers already stretched by new Federal payroll taxes, rising consumer costs and depressed home values.

While listening to the Secretary of Education, Matthew Malone, I was heartened by his testimony which was highlighted by his recognition for a need to reform the current Ch. 70 funding formula; specifically, the increase of the special education per-pupil component from $25K to $35K and the uncapping of the pre-school enrollment so that districts that choose to offer this can have it reflected in their foundation budget. I am also pleased to know that Secretary Malone, a product of Vocational Technical education, recognizes the need to increase capacity for VocTechs around the state, which are delivering well above average academically and are graduating students who are focused on careers right after graduation, or on a post-graduate degree that is highly specific to a field in which they want to work. In Massachusetts, we offer only about ½ of the slots for vocational education that are offered in most other countries, plus many of these students have a high propensity to earn graduate degrees in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, something also lacking in our state.

Some of the problems that continue to plague education in the Commonwealth are the unfunded mandates, a view expressed by many members of the Ways & Means Committee. Regional school transportation reimbursement is down around 55 – 60%, charter school reimbursement is also around 60%, and busing for homeless students (a federal requirement under the McKinney-Vento Act) was cut by 45%, all impacting the cities and towns that have to make up the difference. We also have 43 schools across the state in Level 4 turnaround status, including the receivership status of the entire Lawrence public school system.

The solution by the Governor is to increase spending in education by $550M in FY14 and ramp up over the next four years new spending to the tune of $1B annually. This would be to pay, not only for shortfalls in Chapter 70, but also to expand programs such as early education and to allow for over $1B in new UMass facility construction planned for the future. It also will cover the cost for Massachusetts to integrate into the national “Common Core” standards, including new PARCC testing that will replace MCAS.

On the surface, these goals are notable and would certainly contribute to better educational outcomes across the state. But I’ve stated in the past that I feel that, until we do a thorough adequacy study of the Chapter 70 funding formula, a 20+ year old plan that no longer accounts for shift of economy, demographics and changes in education, we are not wisely spending valuable taxpayer money where it is needed most.

Along those lines, testimony provided by the MMA’s Geoff Beckwith was also slightly damning about the way a proposed $31M in unrestricted local aid would be dispersed to towns. The money would come as a segregated account, including language that grants the Governor’s A&F department to require certain performance criteria. To that end, argued Mr. Beckwith, it is not truly “unrestricted” local aid and could not be counted on by cities and towns for their annual budget, since it may not be counted upon each year.

Additional concerns by the MMA are things we’ve heard often but bear strenuous repeating; the need to report to cities and towns a consensus UGGA commitment as soon as possible to allow for local budgeting; the need to address massive OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) – specifically, retiree healthcare commitments, and the need for the Legislature to increase Chapter 90 funding by $100M and also to authorize its spending as close to April 1st as possible.

The bottom line from this hearing, in my opinion, is that there is a lot of help needed by our municipalities to deliver on the basic services we expect as citizens of the Commonwealth, including a quality education, and the state is still having great difficulty in meeting those goals. I feel that a reprioritization is required on where the state chooses to spend its money, because an annual budget that has grown by over $1B per year over the last decade should be able to deliver on what is best for our cities and towns, the places we call home and where we look to build a better future for our families.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My View: How Could One Individual Have Such A Detrimental Effect On Public Safety?

Today, we present the second installment in our series dedicated to the eight public hearings for the Commonwealth’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget. This edition of My View comes to us from Representative David Vieira.

Yesterday’s second Fiscal Year 2014 Ways and Means hearing featured public safety agencies and the judiciary. I recently participated in the joint oversight hearings regarding the Hinton crime lab as a member of the Joint Committee on Public Safety & Homeland Security, so I had a hunch the issue of the impacts of Annie Dookhan’s alleged activity would come up.

What I didn’t realize was the extent to which the crime lab crisis would jeopardize the integrity of our criminal justice system and hence public safety. Government budgeting is an exercise in setting priorities. Public safety is THE core government function and the essential priority of a free and vibrant society.

So essential is this government function that it is emphasized in the Constitution of the Commonwealth which begins with these words, “The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights, and the blessings of life…”

Representative Vinny deMacedo, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Ways and Means, expressed our sentiments best when he said, “I’m amazed at the impact that one individual can have on our entire judicial system.”

The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security began by requesting additional funding to hire 38 new chemists to clear backlogs in the state crime lab system. The sheriffs of the Commonwealth spoke about increased transportation costs related to the scandal and the district attorneys talked about the case by case reviews being done and the stress on their existing staff. The Chief Justices of the Courts of the Commonwealth shared their needs and how they are doing much more with much less (both staff and dollars) than in years past, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services shared their immediate and long term needs to address the civil liberty issues of those convicted with evidence processed through the Hinton lab.

At a time when median incomes have dropped in the Commonwealth, how can we ask taxpayers to pay more? Surely the requests we received from the public safety and judiciary officials yesterday are much needed and not frivolous requests. As we move forward we must focus on setting priorities of government, funding those priorities and working as diligently as possible to cut waste, fraud and abuse in other areas of the budget.

The outstanding question, beyond the prioritization of the budget will remain, “How could one individual have such a detrimental effect on public safety?,” or was it just that one individual? Time will tell.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidents' Day 2013

From all of us here at The Capitol View, we hope you will join us in observing Presidents' Day.

Two of our nation's presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were born this month and today we recognize them and all of their tremendous accomplishments. We thank them for their service to our country and for making the United States of America the great nation that it is today.

Friday, February 15, 2013

My View: How Can We Justify An Expansion Of Government And New Taxes In Such A Fragile Economy?

Today, we present the first installment in our series dedicated to the eight public hearings for the Commonwealth’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget. This initial My View comes to us from Representative Matt Beaton.

Yesterday marked the start of a series of Fiscal Year 2014 Ways and Means hearings which will be held throughout the Commonwealth. This initial hearing provided the Constitutional Officers and Secretary of Administration and Finance an opportunity to come before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means to discuss various aspects of the Governor’s proposed H1 budget.

Given the Governor’s lofty proposals set forth in his budget recommendations, yesterday’s hearing kicked off what promises to be a spirited budget debate filled with many questions about his proposal of a 6.9% growth in government spending, which relies on a $400 million draw from the Commonwealth’s Rainy Day Fund, $1.9 billion in new taxes, and the elimination of 44 exemptions to the tax code.

At the hearing, Republican membership led the charge in questioning those who testified, raising a number of concerns over the unprecedented tax increases and expansion of government, in the midst of economic uncertainty. The general theme of questioning focused largely on the magnitude and timing of the proposal, along with transparency and the accountability of a government currently operating in the shadow of a series of scandals including the Hinton Drug Lab, and the abuse of various welfare programs. 

Additionally, a number of questions were raised regarding the Governor’s transportation expansion plan at a time when significant resources are needed to repair aging transit infrastructure and to support an agency that is currently operating under crippling levels of debt.

Led by Representative Vinny deMacedo, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Ways and Means, the Republican members of the Committee sought to find answers to a number of concerns with the current budget proposal:

How can we justify an expansion of government and new taxes in such a fragile economy?

How can we justify to the taxpayers a huge expansion of programs that are either currently broken or wrought with waste and abuse?

Is it in the best interest of the Commonwealth, relative to long-term economic prosperity, to increase taxes by $1.9 billion while reducing our stabilization fund by another $400 million?

With these questions in mind, one must further ask: Is now the most prudent time for the Legislature to ask the citizens of the Commonwealth to increase the state bureaucracy another 6.9% on the backs of the hard working taxpayer?

This question lies at the heart of the argument brought forth by the Republican members at yesterday’s hearing. As the Ways and Means hearings progress, my Republican colleagues and I look forward to continuing this debate as well as drilling down on the specifics of the spending proposals. We will continue to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens for all residents of the Commonwealth.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Representative George Peterson Weighs In On Wasteful State Spending

Does spending nearly $17,000 on brand new office chairs for a state agency sound ridiculous to you? Well it did to State Representative George N. Peterson, Jr. (R-Grafton).

In case you missed it, Representative Peterson was featured in a FOX25 Undercover story last night about the state spending over $8 million for office furnishings in Fiscal Year 2012. The Grafton lawmaker saw down with FOX25 reporter Mike Beaudet and offered his reaction to the purchase of new office equipment at a time when parents in his town are shelling out their own money to buy classroom essentials because schools cannot afford to buy the supplies themselves.

See below to see the story in its entirety.

Boston News, Weather, Sports | FOX 25 | MyFoxBoston

Monday, February 4, 2013

Representative Jay Barrows: Fiscal Watchdog Needed at Department of Transitional Assistance

In case you missed it, Representative Jay Barrows (R-Mansfield) was recently interviewed by Pam Cross of WCVB – Channel 5.

As you may know, Daniel Curley was recently forced to resign as Commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). Curley’s resignation comes in response to ongoing and widespread abuse of Massachusetts’ welfare benefits program.

Representative Barrows weighed-in saying that going forward, the DTA needs a commissioner who will serve as a fiscally responsible watchdog of the taxpayers’ money.

Click here to view the segment in its entirety.

Friday, February 1, 2013

House Minority Leader Brad Jones: Recent Revelations Call Into Question Integrity of Department of Transitional Assistance

House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones, Jr. (R-North Reading) issued the following statement in response to the resignation of Daniel Curley, Commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance:

“The Office of the Inspector General’s review of the eligibility process for Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cash assistance revealed clear negligence on the part of the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) in ensuring that taxpayer funded welfare benefits are only granted to those who truly need them. Rather than verifying the accuracy of eligibility information provided by welfare applicants at the time of application, the DTA has instituted a practice of presuming eligibility and providing unverified applicants with benefits. This has not only led to an annual waste of at least $25 million in taxpayer dollars for cash assistance benefits, but last week the USDA revealed that DTA owes the federal government $27.7M for overpayment of SNAP benefits.

These recent revelations call into question the integrity of the Department of Transitional Assistance and the programs it oversees. In the wake of Commissioner Curley’s repeated denial of waste and abuse, I commend Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz for recognizing the need for a change in leadership in order to implement significant reforms within DTA. Change is absolutely essential to ensure that welfare benefits are reserved for the people who need them the most.

The Inspector General’s comprehensive report has provided the Legislature with a blue print for action this session. DTA should be required to have complete information on an applicant and to verify the information provided by an applicant, through the use of real-time data matching with other state and federal agencies, prior to giving out taxpayer funded benefits. The annual cost of the waste resulting from inadequate verification of welfare eligibility far exceeds the cost that would be associated with both tightening eligibility verifications and implementing greater oversight over the use of cash assistance. I look forward to my ongoing advocacy on behalf of Massachusetts’ taxpayers as we look to repair a system that continues to falter and misuse public funds.”

Representative Jones to FOX Undercover: Change Needed at Sex Offender Registry Board

In case you missed it, House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones, Jr. (R-North Reading) was recently interviewed by FOX Undercover’s Mike Beaudet.

As you may know, Representative Jones has filed legislation that would, in part, not only make Level One sex offender information public upon inquiry, but would also create harsher penalties for those individuals who commit sexual crimes against children.

The legislation would also address the current loophole that allows just one member of the Sex Offender Registry Board to decide the initial classification of a convicted sex offender. The North Reading legislator has also included language in his bill that would require a majority of the board to agree on the initial classification.

To view the entire segment, play the video posted below.

  Boston News, Weather, Sports | FOX 25 | MyFoxBoston