Each year the budget is a key part of the work of the Massachusetts legislature. If elected State Senator, I’ll help decide how the Commonwealth spends our money and how we raise the funds.
Let’s look for a moment at taxes. Since serving as the executive director of National Priorities Project (NPP), I have referred to taxes as the dues we pay for living in a democracy. They are a smart investment.
While NPP’s budget analysis was at the federal level, we crunched the numbers so that elected officials and organizers at the state and local levels would have the tools to raise their voices as effective advocates for fair taxation and community-centered spending priorities.
Because of my seven years leading this research shop, I have the necessary background and critical understanding of how local and state budgets interact with our federal budget.
Here’s what I know about our state: Massachusetts must increase our investment in pre-K through public higher education, as well as in job creation and civic and green infrastructure. There’s simply no way to get that done without responsibly and fairly increasing our revenue stream.
Let’s look at our taxes, or how Massachusetts raises its money. Massachusetts revenue comes from:
- Income tax of 5.1% (Massachusetts has a flat tax, per our Constitution)
- Sales tax of 6.25% (including from the sale of marijuana)
- Assorted taxes such as the gas tax and the tax on short-term rentals
- Assorted fees and fines
- Corporate excise and income taxes
- Federal “transfers”: money that enters the Commonwealth from the federal budget through grants and direct spending, which can add up to nearly a quarter of our revenue and helps to support upwards of thirty state agencies.
Here are some things to consider:
- Flat income taxes are ultimately regressive because poor and working class folks pay a larger share of their income in taxes than the wealthiest folks. At the same time, Massachusetts has a moderately progressive sales tax, since food and clothing are exempt, and those items constitute a larger share of out-of-pocket expenses for lower income people. Massachusetts also has a state component of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which I strongly support and which helps low-income individuals and families recoup some of their tax dollars.
- In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Massachusetts legislature lowered the personal income tax rate from 5.95% to its current level. It also lowered the percentage of tax on investment income from 12% to 5.15% annually. The combined effects of these cuts has meant a loss of roughly $2 billion in revenue each year.
- During roughly the same time as the cuts to personal income taxes and taxes on investment income, Massachusetts began increasing its corporate tax breaks.
Here are some of the ways I will fight to increase revenue:
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Fair Share Amendment was inadmissible because the court determined that the ballot initiative could not dictate spending, as that responsibility falls to the legislature. But there is nothing stopping the Massachusetts legislature from initiating a Fair Share ballot measure. If elected, I would support and would fight for a legislative attempt to increase revenue from Fair Share Amendment-like legislation which would ask people earning over $1 million annually to pay an additional 4% of their income in taxes.
I support a legislative study on the impact of raising Massachusetts’ income tax to 6% while also increasing the tax on investment income. With regard to the income tax increase, I would fight for tax breaks for middle, working, and low-income families to mitigate the increased tax burden. These tax breaks could be tied to individual or family income or to eligibility for other safety-net programs.
We need to revisit Massachusetts’ corporate tax breaks. Prior to 1996, corporate tax breaks cost our state government between $390 million and $450 million in lost revenue. This year, they are projected cost roughly $1 billion. Besides representing an enormous loss of revenue, these tax breaks remain buried in our tax code. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trust ranked Massachusetts in the bottom tier in terms of our evaluation of the effectiveness of corporate tax breaks.
I would fight to enact the 2012 recommendations of the Tax Expenditure Commission, which include:
- Clearly enumerating all corporate tax breaks with their proposed benefits spelled out.
- Evaluating the efficacy of corporate tax breaks based on agreed-upon metrics.
- Ensuring that tax breaks are regularly reviewed.
And I would fight to eliminate unnecessary corporate tax breaks. Here is one prime example of a corporate tax break that must be brought to light and, I believe, eliminated (I give credit to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center for raising this issue). Currently, movie companies shooting films in Massachusetts enjoy a 25% tax break. That means, if a company’s budget is $100 million, the Commonwealth returns $25 million to the company. But since the film company won’t actually owe $25 million in taxes, it actually makes a profit on this tax break, at taxpayers’ expense. This particular corporate tax break will cost Massachusetts taxpayers $80 million this fiscal year.
ON THE OPIOID CRISIS
I got my start in Social Work in New York City doing work around women and addiction and then in this region leading a crisis intervention outreach team. I have seen the devastating impact of trauma and addiction on individuals and families up close. It has opened my eyes and heart to what’s needed now to meet the escalating opioid crisis in our region.
It is essential that the legislature deepen its support for our district in reducing opioid addiction and preventing overdose deaths. The Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region has developed a comprehensive approach to addressing the opioid crisis that has become a blueprint for other towns and counties in the Commonwealth and beyond. I strongly support its model, which fights the crisis through targeted work in five areas:
- Education and Prevention. Prevent opioid misuse through broad-based education and prevention efforts, including by focused work with children from a young age and through use of trauma-informed practices.
- Treatment and Recovery. Advocate for the services necessary to support individuals at every step of recovery, from syringe exchange to recovery centers to ongoing support networks.
- Health Care. Enhance trauma-informed training and practices at our health care centers, expand mental health resources, and reduce the overprescribing of opioids.
- Law Enforcement. We must treat addiction as a disease rather than a criminal act. Provide training about the physiology of addiction to law enforcement and court officials, and build partnerships between behavioral health providers and law enforcement. Ensure that Narcan is widely available.
- Employment and Housing. Lack of economic opportunity is a driver of drug misuse, and lack of safe housing prevents people in recovery from maintaining sobriety. We must expand sober housing options in our district, and provide training opportunities for people in recovery.
People in this district are falling victim to addiction at younger and younger ages. That’s why we must prioritize intervention and the use of trauma-informed practices at high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools. Recognizing the earliest signs of anxiety and depression as well as traumatic experiences in the lives of young people holds the greatest promise for steering the next generation away from opioid misuse.
Currently we are falling short when it comes to making treatment options available for those who have taken the enormous step of reaching out for help. I will fight for more detox beds and expanded resources for mental health counseling. I also strongly support the Family Drug Court model, and the underlying philosophy that recovery requires support from peers.
A society should be judged by how we treat our people at the “bookends” of life, as children and as elders.
Here are some of the initiatives I would fight for in the legislature:
- Elders have a right to age in place. We need legislation that stops the one-way conveyor belt from hospitals to rehab facilities to nursing homes. There is a law on the books currently that directs hospitals to counsel patients about their home care options as they prepare to leave the hospital. The legislature should work to ensure that law is enforced. Nursing homes should be the last resort, not the first.
- Spouses must be allowed to be caregivers. Right now in Massachusetts, spouses are not eligible to be paid as personal care attendants. This is illogical, especially when we consider that paying a spouse to care for their loved one will also help stabilize the family economically.
- Caregivers must receive fair compensation. In order to ensure quality elder care, as well as to provide fair compensation and living-wage employment, all home care aides must earn at least $15 per hour.
- Elders deserve economic security. A recent study by the University of Massachusetts measured the Elder Economic Security index, which is essentially the resources that elders require in order to stay in their homes and meet their individual needs. Sixty-one percent of elderly individuals in Massachusetts live below the index cut-off line for minimum required resources. That means their income doesn’t allow them to age in place independently while meeting basic needs. In fact, because of our relatively high cost of living, Massachusetts is the second worst state in the nation for elder economic security, second only to Mississippi. The findings from this report triggered a legislative elder-security commission that made a number of important recommendations, all of which I support. These recommendations include lifting the age cap on the Earned Income Tax Credit and ensuring access to a number of critical government programs like LIHEAP (the low-income heating assistance program).
- Elders deserve both life and death with dignity. Elders must be supported in their efforts to make plans for health care proxies and other contingencies, and we must allow them to choose the end-of-life circumstances that are right for them. The legislature must create adequate fail-safes to ensure that no one is coerced into inappropriate end-of-life care.
ON SUPPORTING FARMS AND FARMERS
There are local farms and farmers in every city and town in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district, where we have some of the richest soil in the nation. Farming is intrinsic to who we are.
And yet—as much as our region values local produce, meat, and dairy—we know that our farmers often struggle financially. It is nearly impossible for them to compete with the big agribusinesses that benefit from larger scale, lower pay, and notoriously lower environmental standards. And yet our farmers and farms persist, season after season.
I firmly believe “No farms, No food.” It’s as simple (and as profound) as that. That’s why the state legislature must support our local farms.
Here are four initiatives I would fight for:
- Dairy Tax Credit: There are only 135 dairy farms left in Massachusetts. That number has dropped 95% over the last 50 years and yet dairy farms still represent 18% of the farmland. The price of milk does not account for the true cost of producing milk in our district. That’s why the legislature can and should make up the difference.
- Healthy Incentives Program (HIP): How can we create incentives for folks who receive SNAP benefits (Food Stamps) to shop locally and purchase local produce? By adding funds to their existing benefits. That’s the core function of the wildly successful, win-win Healthy Incentives Program that gives SNAP recipients $1 in additional benefits for every dollar they spend on local produce, up to a specified limit.
- Agriculture Preservation Restriction (APR): The APR allows farmers to sell the development rights to their land in order to raise capital for improvements to their farms, or to pay off debt, while ensuring that the land remains theirs to farm. It also guarantees that the land is not commercially developed.
- Support for organizations like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA): CISA helped spark the “buy local” movement in the Commonwealth. It receives critical state funding for its Senior Farm Share program, which it runs in partnership with local farms. And it continues to operate its “buy local” initiatives, which keep residents focused on the importance of buying local in order to support our farms and economy.
ON REGIONAL FOOD SECURITY
I had the privilege to serve as the Director of Programs at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, which serves all four western Massachusetts counties. In that position I oversaw direct service initiatives like the Brown Bag Program, which ensured that hundreds of elders who were in danger of going hungry received a bag of nutritious groceries every week. Our team also provided the food for hundreds of meal sites, food pantries, and summer meal programs.
In addition to meeting the immediate and critical demands of hunger and food insecurity in our region, I also helped initiate a program called Target Hunger, with the goal of ending hunger in our midst. As part of Target Hunger, our team created two farmers markets, in North Adams and the Mason Square neighborhood in Springfield, both of which accept SNAP/Food Stamps. We increased The Food Bank’s advocacy and outreach around SNAP, and we helped develop community-based nutrition programs to assist local communities struggling with food insecurity to stretch their dollars to purchase healthy meals on tight budgets.
Here’s a look at food insecurity in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district:
- About 21,000 people (or about 13%) are food insecure. That means they are not sure where their next meal will come from.
- Approximately 14,000 of these folks currently receive SNAP, with their benefits totaling about $1.7 million every month.
- Not only is SNAP a lifeline, it’s also a powerful boost for the local economy. Research has shown again and again that SNAP benefits enter the economy at the base level, meaning they’re spent as soon as folks get them—helping to mitigate hunger and food insecurity and stimulating the economy by supporting retailers and farmers. The Food Bank estimates that the district-level economic impact of $1.7 million in SNAP benefits is over $3.1 million per month, because the spending has a positive ripple effect.
For all of these reasons, I will fight for:
- Full funding for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP). I know firsthand how much The Food Bank relies on this critical funding to fill its shelves and support member programs.
- Full funding for the Massachusetts Earned Income Tax credit, which is essential economic relief for working people.
- And I’ll join state colleagues in outspoken support of the federal Farm Bill, which is where SNAP benefits are legislated.