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Richard R. Tisei

Lawmakers, don’t focus on fluff

(Sean Kelly for The Boston Globe)
By Richard R. Tisei
October 25, 2009

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WITH UNEMPLOYMENT at a 33-year high of 9.3 percent and the state budget tanking because of free-falling tax revenues, you would think that Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature would be working around the clock doing everything possible to eliminate wasteful spending and make state government run more efficiently.

Instead, the message coming out of the Legislature and the corner office during the last couple of weeks seems to lack any real sense of urgency.

Patrick just announced he is convening an economic summit this month that will focus on jobs creation and getting the state’s economy back on track. What took him so long? Patrick’s wait-and-see-approach to a crisis that has been percolating for the last three budget cycles amounts to a case of too little, too late.

If Patrick has been slow to react to the crisis, the Legislature has been even slower. As the budget continues to bleed red ink, and agencies that service some of the state’s most vulnerable residents brace for additional budget cuts, here are some of the “urgent’’ matters the Legislature has been focused on:

■ We’re debating whether the Fluffernutter should be designated the official state sandwich. Thousands of people are worrying about being able to put food on the table, but we’re determined to make sure Massachusetts is the first state in the nation with an “official’’ sandwich.

■ The governor and some legislators are calling for boycotts of Massachusetts businesses at the same time unemployment is fast approaching double figures and many companies are struggling to remain solvent. Have we forgotten that it is businesses - not government - that are responsible for creating the jobs and generating the tax revenues that help fuel the economy?

■ Some legislators are proposing a bill that could require some dog owners to pay an increase of more than 1,000 percent for a basic license. It’s hardly surprising, considering the Legislature just hiked the sales tax, the meals tax, satellite dish tax, and the hotel tax, and created an alcohol tax. Now they’re talking about an income tax hike - where does it end?

■ For some legislators, the most important issue seems to be passing a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote before they’re even old enough to legally cast a ballot. Meanwhile, many adults who are old enough to vote are losing their jobs, and the Legislature doesn’t seem to be doing much to get people back to work.

■ We’re even being asked to consider a bill that would require banks and insurance companies that do business with the state to document past profits earned from the slave trade. Meanwhile, those employers are dealing with one of the biggest corporate tax increases in the state’s history, which is driving businesses away from Massachusetts and forcing some companies to close their doors.

September revenues dropped $333 million compared to last year and were $243 million below current benchmarks. For the first quarter of the current fiscal year, the numbers are down $477 million from 2008 and $212 million short of year-to-date benchmarks.

Economists estimate that the state budget is out of balance by as much as $1 billion, and predict that the state could face a deficit at least double that amount in fiscal 2011. State revenues are not expected to rebound to pre-recession levels for another four to five years.

The Legislature needs to be proactive in dealing with this problem, but instead it is occupying itself with most trivial and frivolous issues. We’re doing everything we can to avoid tackling the real problems facing the Commonwealth when we should be rolling up our sleeves and making the difficult decisions that are required to get us through this economic crisis.

If we’re really serious about getting state spending under control, then we need to implement an immediate hiring and pay freeze, just like many private employers have been forced to do. We also need to consider moving the state’s Medicaid recipients into managed care plans to rein in health care costs, which make up a significant portion of the budget. And while we are at it, we should repeal the anti-privatization Pacheco law, which costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Legislature should convene in emergency session to discuss what can be done to jump-start the Massachusetts economy, restructure government, and make service delivery more efficient.

But more importantly, we need to stop debating inconsequential legislation like the Fluffernutter bill and focus on doing everything we can to promote job growth and get the state’s economy back on track.

Richard R. Tisei is minority leader of the Massachusetts Senate.

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