The Telegram & Gazette
Thursday, May 18, 2000
State Senate unveils budget
Donors to charity offered break
By Timothy J. Connolly
Telegram & Gazette Staff
BOSTON -- The state Senate's $21.5 billion budget for
fiscal 2001 includes an $80 million tax cut for those who contribute to charities.
The spending plan released yesterday also expands
health care services, increases spending for education, provides a prescription medicine
subsidy for the elderly and creates a fund to help dairy farms.
The budget, which will be debated next week, is $190
million less than the House budget approved last month. It also increases state spending
by 6 percent over this year's budget.
Once the Senate approves its version, a conference
committee will hammer out a compromise budget to be sent to Gov. Paul Cellucci.
The governor, who can veto any portion, will send the
budget back to the Legislature for final approval. Two-thirds votes of both houses are
needed to override vetoes.
The fiscal year begins July 1.
"Not only is this budget fiscally balanced, it is
also balanced in its choices and its values," said Senate President Thomas F.
Birmingham. "We support initiatives that will enhance public schools, improve health
care, expand affordable housing and cut taxes."
Both Mr. Birmingham and Sen. Mark C. Montigny, D-New
Bedford, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, trumpeted the tax cut. It is the
type of targeted tax cut that Mr. Birmingham prefers.
The budget creates a personal deduction from the state
income tax for people who contribute to charities. Mr. Montigny said he figures it will
cost the state $80 million in fiscal 2001 because it will not take effect until Jan. 1.
Once it is in effect for a full year, it will cost about $164 million annually.
The Committee to Encourage Charitable Giving already
has begun the process to place a tax deduction question on the Nov. 7 ballot. Early
indications are that the question would be approved by voters.
Because of the positive prospects of the question, Mr.
Birmingham was asked if including the tax cut in the Senate budget was a
"If it's a no-brainer, it's one that didn't occur
to anyone else who was writing a budget this year," Mr. Birmingham said.
Neither Mr. Cellucci's budget nor the House version
included the charitable contribution tax deduction.
Mr. Birmingham slammed a proposal to roll back the
income tax to 5 percent, which Mr. Cellucci has championed. Mr. Birmingham said the
governor's idea was risky, but now that the state has had to bail out Harvard Pilgrim
Health Care and the Big Dig project, it is "reckless."
"If the tax rollback passes, the sky won't fall
and the state will not crumble and fall into the sea, but we won't be able to do what we
should do in education and health care," he said.
The Senate wants to spend $50 million to improve the
quality of care in nursing homes and $95 million to support hospitals. Another $10.9
million is set aside to help community health centers.
"We don't solve the health care crisis, but we
take steps toward alleviating some of the problems," said Sen. Richard T. Moore,
D-Uxbridge, co-chairman of the Legislature's joint committee on health care. "We
still need some help from our friends in Washington."
Education, from preschool to college, would get an
added $350 million in fiscal 2001 in the Senate version of the budget. The addition covers
school building assistance, special education and technology. The Senate's budget differs
from the House version in its approach to special education.
The Senate budget maintains the "maximum feasible
benefit" criterion of Chapter 766, the state's special education law. The House
budget would move the state to the "free and appropriate education" standard
used in most states.
Critics argue that the free-and-appropriate standard
lowers the quality of education for special needs students.
The differences in how the two chambers view special
education could be a sticking point for the conference committee....
The Telegram & Gazette
Thursday, May 18, 2000
A dire error
Early retirement bill an education disaster
Caving in to a relentless campaign by the
Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state Legislature rubber-stamped an early
retirement package that has dire implications -- not only for the pension fund, but for
the state's multibillion-dollar education reform effort.
Have our representatives and senators succumbed to
mass madness, or are they simply pandering shamelessly to the aggressive teachers union?
Among the few on Beacon Hill who seem to have kept a
grip on reality -- and who have the integrity to act accordingly -- is Gov. Paul Cellucci,
who sent the giveaway back to the Legislature.
Whether lawmakers will reconsider the issue and uphold
a gubernatorial veto is uncertain. Profiles in courage seem conspicuously absent on this
issue. The early retirement package fails the smell test on several levels, beginning with
the fiscal havoc it would wreak.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates it
would increase state pension costs by as much as $1 billion over the next 20 years.
Already faced with a $100 million boost to cover the state's pension liability in 2001,
the state would have to spend as much as $50 million a year to cover this early retirement
The new benefit would trigger an exodus of seasoned,
effective educators at a time when they are needed more than ever. The role of these
veterans is crucial during the current refinement and accountability phase of the state's
education reform effort.
The taxpayers foundation calculates that 8,500
teachers, more than 10 percent of the total, would be likely to retire immediately --
compared with the current retirement rate of about 2,000 a year. In addition, over 23,000
would be eligible to retire early over the next five years.
Yet, the lawmakers who voted for the giveaway have no
clue where replacements for the thousands of retirees would be found.
Moreover, the giveaway would hobble local efforts to
hire new teachers, since increases in the pension contributions effectively would impose a
2 percent to 3 percent pay cut for new hires.
Under the measure that sailed through the Legislature,
teachers would be able to retire after 30 years of service -- a milestone most pass in
their early to mid 50s.
Since when did it become a reasonable career
trajectory to contribute 30 years of productive labor to society, then go on permanent
vacation -- based on current life expectancy -- for another 30, 40 or more years? Using
his authority to amend bills submitted to him, Gov. Cellucci has proposed cash incentives
to keep experienced educators in the classroom where they are needed in this critical
phase of education reform.
This is a sensible alternative that would ease --
instead of aggravating -- the teacher shortage.
The retirement package also would set a costly
precedent that lawmakers either overlooked or cynically choose to ignore.
If teachers succeed in establishing an entitlement to
retire in the prime of middle age, it is certain that demands for similar early retirement
benefits will be pressed relentlessly -- under the banner of pension "equity" --
by public employees throughout state and local government.
It has been painful to see the Massachusetts Teachers
Association's metamorphosis in recent years from a responsible professional organization
to an increasingly militant union that crusades tirelessly to boost the flow of taxpayer
money into public schools while insulating them from accountability for quality or
For the sake of public education, and the future
stability of state and local public pension funds, the Legislature should correct its