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Massachusetts 2012 State Budget Update with Senator Benjamin Downing

By Patrick Donges


Pittsfield, MA – As a member of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee, Senator Benjamin Downing, who represents all of Berkshire County and parts of Franklin and Hampden counties, helped craft the $30.5 billion proposal that was debated and passed with amendments last Thursday evening.

The final figure, which Downing said was a baseline of about 29.2 billion, around $30 million less than budgets proposed by Governor Deval Patrick and passed by the state House of Representatives, included deep cuts to unrestricted aid to municipalities.

While he didn't go as far as Senate President Therese Murray, who called the budget "painful, Downing said the cuts to local aid were "unfortunate," and that the loss of federal funds that were a "godsend" for many state programs over the past two years made this year's negotiations exceptionally difficult.

"Because of the lack of federal funds, many programs are receiving less money this year. They may be receiving more state money, but the federal money is completely non-existent."

"It will mean tighter budgets on our campuses of public higher education, something that I strived to try and avoid, and something I think that is short sighted in the long run. It will mean tighter budgets at our environmental agencies, something I tried to work on in this budget but was unfortunately unsuccessful on. It will mean tighter budgets through nearly every part of state government."

Despite the cuts, Downing said some vital funding was retained, notably in education, where local aid was approved to remain at 2011 levels.

"We were able to level fund Chapter 70, local aid funding for education. We need to continue to do everything we can to ensure that every kid in the Commonwealth has access to high quality education and I think we do that in this budget."

The Senate budget also included $1 million in restored aid for the state's anti-gang violence program and between $3 and $4 million for a youth summer jobs program.

They also tackled health care, notably an amendment for municipal health cost containment.

Under the proposal, cities and towns would be able to join the state Group Insurance Commission if they can demonstrate the switch would result savings of at least 10 percent more than by adjusting health plan design costs.

Municipalities and unions would be given 30 days to negotiate co-pays and other costs before going to a three member arbitration panel, with one party each chosen by management and labor, and a third party chosen by the state Secretary of Administration and Finance.

In April the House was criticized by labor officials for their proposal which would take negotiation of the costs of those same design features out of the collective bargaining process. Here's Downing.

"The proposal was built on three pillars. We wanted to provide savings to the municipalities, we wanted there to be a meaningful voice for the public employees and we wanted to make sure that the poor, the disabled, and the elderly, were not subject to massive increases for services they simply cannot put off."

"The closure mechanism that we came up with is something that is fair for everyone."

The Senate budget also contains language that would establish a caseload forecasting office for MassHealth, the state's public health care program for low income residents.

"We don't have a way to determine how many people will enroll in MassHealth if our unemployment figures go up a percent (or) down a percent; how will that affect food stamps (and) eligibly for housing assistance and homelessness assistance programs?"

"We want to be able to have verified numbers that say, here's what we can expect in demand for these programs, so that we can be more efficient and more effective with how we deploy our resources, especially when they're scarce."

Downing said the measure is related to financial reform legislation proposed by Murray to establish metrics for all state programs to help determine funding limits in a push towards more "zero based budgeting."

"Right now we practice maintenance budgeting, and that's not the best way to run a railroad. It's better to start from zero and say, what do we need and what's the best way to deliver it?'"

The Senate is expected to take up debate on those measures before the convening of a budget conference committee later this month.

The legislature is also expected to begin debate on health care cost containment proposed by Governor Deval Patrick and a statewide gambling proposal in the coming weeks.

Downing said while the outlook going into the 2012 fiscal year seems good across the country, tough budget decisions will be required into the final days of negotiations.

"We've made tough choices, (and) we've had those choices reaffirmed by seeing out bond rating increased. We're in a good position, but we certainly have more work to do."