Friday, October 11, 2002
by Elisabeth J. Beardsley
Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift mowed a $202 million swath through state government yesterday, slashing everything from health care to higher education while imposing the first major belt-tightening in a decade on thousands of state workers.
The emergency mid-year spending cuts come as Swift struggles to plug a $300 million tax collection shortfall, which is fueling a state budget deficit on track to exceed $2 billion next year.
"We need to close this gap completely, and we need to close it now," said Swift, adding that the economic recovery state leaders have been hoping for "will not materialize."
Of the $202 million in reductions, $138 million comes from direct program cuts and the other $64 million through "cash management" strategies such as freezing local aid payments and refinancing debt.
State leaders have slashed nearly $2 billion from programs in the past year, burned through $1.8 billion in "rainy day" reserves, and imposed $1.2 billion in new taxes.
Activists have already begun agitating for more tax hikes this year to stave off even deeper cuts, which cut into treasured public health and nutrition programs.
"We're literally taking food out of the mouths of hungry kids," said Massachusetts Human Services Coalition Director Stephen Collins.
Swift yesterday moved to cut deeply into the budget-busting Medicaid program, which provides health insurance to nearly 1 million of the state's poorest residents.
In addition to gutting $7 million in grants for community health centers, Swift slashed $6 million from a relief fund for distressed hospitals.
Advocates say the hospitals can ill-afford the cut.
"The health care safety net is on the verge of collapse," said Massachusetts Hospital Association spokesman David Ball. "Today's action only brings us closer to the edge."
But hospitals and advocates are even more alarmed at Swift's proposal - which would require legislative approval - to kick 50,000 people off their state-sponsored health insurance two months earlier than planned.
Lawmakers decided earlier this year to eliminate the MassHealth Basic plan as of April 1, but Swift estimates the state could save an extra $11.5 million by ending the coverage Feb. 1.
"We think it will be devastating to the people," said Health Care For All Deputy Director Marcia Hams.
At the Department of Public Health, which had already absorbed $90 million in cuts in the past year, 22 separate programs were slashed to the collective tune of $7.2 million.
The state's acclaimed smoking cessation program is now a shell, after Swift yesterday sliced out another $3.7 million - leaving just $5.8 million, a 90 percent reduction in less than a year.
Swift also clipped $2.8 million from cervical and breast cancer awareness programs; $162,000 from multiple sclerosis screening, and $168,000 from the WIC nutrition program for poor kids.
State workers are in an uproar, after Swift cut retirees' cash benefits, reneged on collective bargaining agreements and ordered a $3 million furlough program for 3,152 non-union state managers.
The single-largest cut Swift levied was a $28.8 million hit on the Group Insurance Commission, which means that each of the 46,000 retired state workers - many on fixed incomes - will lose $520-a-year in cash reimbursements for Medicare costs.
Swift said she would "reluctantly" refuse to sign off on disbursement of $20 million that was set aside last year for contract raises for University of Massachusetts employees.
"A deal's a deal," objected John Templeton, president of SEIU Local 509, which represents 1,500 UMass employees.
Swift called on lawmakers to return to formal sessions to plug the remaining $85 million hole by curtailing Lottery payouts or hiking state workers' health care co-payments.
Senate leaders dug in against the MassHealth Basic cut, while House leaders called the Lottery payout proposal "perilous."
Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham said he wouldn't rule out the
possibility of calling the Senate back into session to vote on further
cuts. But he said senators aren't convinced Swift has made the case for
the further cuts.
© Copyright by the Boston Herald