As a state, we have already taken drastic measures to address our budgetary shortfalls. We have slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in services, we have raised the sales tax to prevent deeper cuts and we continue to rely on one-time revenues from the federal stimulus package.
The rainy day fund has nearly dried up, and revenues continue to slide as many people across the state remain unemployed.
Where will we go in next year’s budget? Should we cut more of the services that our neighbors are depending on to support their families while they search for non-existent jobs? Should we put even more seniors on waiting lists for such an essential service as Meals on Wheels? Should we continue to tell those with substance abuse problems that there are no more detox beds and that the only place they can get treatment is prison?
These are challenging times, but we have better options. I believe it is our duty as a community to come together with comprehensive, rational solutions.
Despite the severity of the challenges we face, some areas of the budget remain frustratingly off-limits. One such area is our tax expenditures.
The commonwealth spends billions of dollars in tax breaks, tax credits and tax exemptions. Yet because they are not listed in the budget like other programs, they are left untouched. So while we choose between cutting school funding and senior care, we don’t touch tax credits to the film industry, life science corporations and developers doing historic preservation.
Some of these initiatives may be worthy expenses for public dollars, but we need to look at all of our priorities, and make difficult choices based on full information.
I have been aggressively pushing transparency reform on how certain business tax credits are reported. Currently, no member of the public, the press, or even the Legislature has any way of knowing who gets these credits, how much they get, or what they have produced in exchange for our public funds.
This information is off limits.
If any organization or business applies for a state grant, their record is public and they are responsible for showing that they have spent our money in pursuit of specific public policy goals. But if they get a tax credit, no such reporting is required.
So far, we have been unable to get enough support for tax credit transparency, but this is something I will continue to pursue.
The second area of transparency I have been calling for is with the Legislature’s own budget. The Legislature this month overrode the governor’s veto of funds from the legislative account. I opposed that override.
Just like every other state agency, the House and Senate have accounts to cover needed expenses, including staffing, office expenses and State House operations and maintenance. But as a member of the Legislature, and even as a member of the Ways & Means Committee which oversees the state’s budget, I can’t even tell you how much of the Legislature’s funding goes to staffing, how much goes to operations, or how much goes to maintaining the historic building in which we work.
It is not my intention to play into tired conservative rhetoric about waste in government. I know how hard our legislative staff work and how underpaid they are. But if I am to ask the public — my constituents — to trust me in being fiscally responsible with public resources, then I need to be able to say the Legislature’s own money is spent wisely and prudently. Right now, I have no basis for making that kind of assessment.
In tough economic times such as these, we need to take a fair and thorough approach to balancing the state budget. Until we are successful in bringing transparency to the Legislature’s own budget and how our tax credit money is being spent, I will continue to oppose budget measures that cut core services that our families and communities depend upon.
— Rep. Carl Sciortino, who represents Somerville and Medford, is a Medford resident.