STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 1, 2001 ... Umbrella-toting seniors
rallied here today, beseeching state lawmakers to save health and social service programs by tapping into "rainy
day" reserve funds and delaying the voter-passed income tax cut, a proposal
that is gathering momentum in the Senate.
About 250 senior citizens expressed worries about possible
cuts to a brand new prescription drug program and home care services that are still rebounding from cuts in the early
1990s. They demanded that lawmakers revisit the income tax cut -- a difficult proposition given
Acting Gov. Jane Swift's unbendable support for it -- and spend a portion of the state's
$1.7 billion rainy day, or stabilization, fund.
The protest was an opening salvo in a debate over priorities
as the Legislature and Swift deal with a $1.35 billion budget gap that is growing every day as tax receipts fall and the
Hoisting umbrellas, the seniors cheered, "Rain, rain, go
away! The rainy day fund has got to pay!"
"We're not going to let the most vulnerable people in our
society be the victims of the shortfall in the budget," Phil Mamber, director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council,
told the applauding crowd.
The state budget is four months late, still locked in
negotiations between Democratic House and Senate leaders. Budget writers are looking to close the gap with spending cuts
and reserve funds. And while they've been preaching the need for quick action, no concrete plans
have emerged in weeks.
Advocates worry that cuts will hit state agencies that
provide daily living services to elders who live at home, possible forcing them into more expensive nursing home care.
"Even if we get level-funded, we're going to have to cut
hours to just pay for inflation," said Al Norman, executive director of the Massachusetts Home Care Association.
The seniors are also hoping to ease cuts to a new state
prescription drug insurance program. Prescription Advantage, which has 63,000 enrollees, is depending on state subsidies and
copayments from participants. Its supporters have hailed it asthe first program of its kind in
the nation. Skeptics have predicted that it has the potential to become a major drain on
the state budget.
Delaying the income tax rollback could help by saving $200
million next year, they said.
Senate President Thomas Birmingham brought the issue before
a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats on Thursday and said afterward that a "majority" in the Senate believes a
delay in the income tax cut "is the right thing to do." But, he added,
"We will have to demonstrate the severity of the cuts before at least two thirds of the members are prepared
to embrace the delay."
It would take a two thirds vote to override a veto from
Swift, who opposes any freeze in the income tax cut, passed overwhelmingly by voters last year.
That law calls for the state income tax rate to drop from
5.6 percent to 5.3 percent on Jan. 1, 2002, and to 5 percent on Jan. 1, 2003. Before voters approved the tax cut in November
2000, the House voted for a tax cut plan that would have delayed the reduction if the
economy took a sharp downward turn. The Senate never voted on that plan.
The activists also implored lawmakers to tap the rainy day
fund, a proposal that seemed far-flung just months ago but is now garnering supporting from Acting Gov. Jane Swift and
House and Senate leaders.
"We will access some of the rainy day fund," Birmingham said
to cheers, though he quickly added, "We cannot be all things to all people. There will be cuts."
An aide to House Speaker Thomas Finneran said Finneran, too,
was prepared to tap the reserve fund and Swift said she is ready to draw $300 million next year from the fund, and
hundreds of millions more in the subsequent two years.
"If you are in a run-of-the-mill fiscal and economic crises,
then dipping deep into our cash savings would make all the sense in the world," Swift told reporters. "At this time of
national emergency, where many of the threats happen on our own soil, I think it's irresponsible to
totally deplete that."
Joan Morris, a member of the Senior Action Council from
Cambridge, lobbied for the Prescription Advantage program. "I didn't think I was going to see Birmingham -- it kind of
made me feel good," she said after the rally. "But then because he said about how the money
is low anyhow, it makes you wonder how good it will really be in the long run."
Oct. 30, 2001
Contact: Al Norman 781-272-7177 x 281
UMBRELLAS INSIDE: BAD LUCK FOR SENIORS?
Home Care Advocates Want to Avoid 1988 Recession
STATE HOUSE -- It's deja vu all over again. Thirteen years ago,
thousands of senior citizens were locked out of the home care program in Massachusetts when falling revenues
kicked the caseload down from 45,000 seniors per month, to 30,000. The
program has never fully recovered -- and advocates fear it will happen again.
"We spent the entire decade of the 1990s slowly building
back up to where we were in 1988," explained Mass Home Care Executive Director Al Norman. "We're still serving
6,000 fewer seniors than we did when Michael Dukakis left office."
Mass Home Care is one of the prime organizers of THE
UMBRELLA DAY event in the state house on November 1st at 11 am in Gardner Auditorium, calling for use of Rainy
Day-funds and a halt in the income tax rollback.
Norman said that the 27 agencies he represents will have no
choice but to cut services is the FY 2002 budget is funded at levels requested by Governor Swift. Since last July, the cost
of buying an hour of homemaker time in Massachusetts has gone up 7%. "Even if we get
level-funded, we're going to have to cut hours just to pay for inflation," Norman said.
Ironically, the Swift Administration recently released a
report calling for increased community care funding for the elderly through the year 2006. The report cited the "biased"
spending on nursing home care in the Commonwealth, and the need to "balance" funding for home care.
"The Governor's people just spent more than a year writing a
report that says we need more home care funding. Do they think these needy seniors disappear during a recession?"
Norman warned that once programs for disabled seniors are
cut, it takes years to bring levels back up. "Elders hear that cuts are happening and they don't even bother to apply.
They assume there's no hope," Norman explained. "We spent the entire length of the
Weld-Cellucci years rebuilding our program. Now we could slide downwards again."
This time Norman and others want the General Court and the
Governor to come up with the money needed to protect these disabled people. "The disabled of our state have the right to
receive care in the most integrated setting possible," Norman said. "If they cut into these
programs too deeply, they could be violating the civil rights of these elders under the federal
Americans With Disabilities Act -- and we'll do whatever we need to do to protect them and
prevent major cuts in home care. We're going to carry our open umbrellas inside the State
House. We're not worried about bad luck, because vulnerable seniors are going to have real
bad luck if the Administration doesn't tap into the Rainy Day fund and stop the next round of
income tax reductions."