By State Senator Patricia Jehlen
Second Middlesex District
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Massachusetts has reached a fork in the road. One path leads to an even better education system, a reliable public transit system, well maintained roads and bridges, and a revived economy. The other path leads to further cuts for vital services, decrepit roads and bridges, increased fares on public transportation, and long waiting lists for early education and elder home care.
That first path is paved with a common sense tax reform package. This package can be based on a two part adjustment to the tax code: raising the income tax rate in conjunction with a near doubling of the personal exemption. This would make the tax structure fairer and more progressive while also providing the revenue to keep the commonwealth moving forward. Most individuals and middle class families would pay close to the same amount they currently pay in taxes while higher income earners will pay a bit more but still at a lesser level than in the 1990s. This is just one proposed plan to consider, along with other alternatives, in an effort to achieve our revenue goal.
A quick history lesson shows why this modest revenue proposal is needed. The days of “Taxachusetts” are long gone. Since 1977, when we were in fact among the most highly taxed states, we have cut state and local taxes 26%, more than every state besides Arizona. Nationally, the average decrease is 7%. Since 1998, state taxes as a share of personal income have been cut by over $3 billion annually. Special business tax breaks to particular sectors have more than doubled in the last 15 years. In fact, had we kept taxes at the same rates as in the 90s, we would not have been dealing with budget deficits each year since the recession. Instead, we would have had an extra $3 billion annually to invest in education, transportation, home care, and other necessities.
As a result of these tax changes, Massachusetts has been forced to make crippling cuts to the services that make our state attractive to business and improve our quality of life. Our transportation infrastructure is at a crisis point. Local aid is down 46% since 2001, after adjusting for inflation. Early education and care is down by 28%. Higher education is down 31%. Public health funding is down 25%. The recession only accelerated this process. For instance, even without adjusting for inflation, home care funding for seniors is down 6.3% over the past 5 years. These cuts lead to tangible problems, like a 30,000 child wait list for early education and a 1,200 elder waitlist for home care.
To keep Massachusetts a great place to live, work, and raise a family, we need more revenue. These goals are not aggressive or financially wasteful. Our aim is to merely get back to the reasonable funding levels of the budgets passed during the Romney administration by using a tax structure closer to, but still less burdensome than, the one under the Weld administration.
Our economy and quality of life depends on people standing up to demand these investments. We need an education system that produces the skilled workforce that makes Massachusetts attractive to businesses. We need a transportation system where frequent MBTA breakdowns are not keeping commuters trapped underground for hours in 40 year old, rusted-out subway cars. We need elder support services that allow Massachusetts residents to age gracefully in their own homes.
The time is now to move our state forward on the right path, for ourselves and for future generations. Budgets express our values. I believe we value living in a state that strives to have an excellent educational system, that fixes a failing transportation system rather than kicking the can down the road again, that makes smart investments to ensure a dynamic economy for decades to come, and that chooses to invest in the future, as our parents and grandparents did before us.