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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

How do you pay for it?

The Herald (you know the newspaper that believes in all tax cuts, all the time) offers a prominent defense today for a program that counsels gamblers and is apparently facing a state budget cut. It follows some impassioned blogging about the future of school sports in Stoneham.

The stories show how advocates of programs and services lobby for their (very legitimate) needs out of context -- and why it is important for the media to provide that basic understanding of how things fit in the larger context.

The Herald offers a solid news hook but a shaky context -- office pools that mostly provide small-change entertainment around the NCAA college basketball tournament -- to make the case for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. The agency draws its cash from the Massachusetts Lottery.
“It’s a particularly bad time,” said Kathleen M. Scanlan, Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling executive director.“There’s increased pressure on the lottery to increase profits. They need to provide some sort of safety net.”
No one disputes the good work the council does. But it is interesting to note that the "cut" isn't really that, at least according to Patrick administration spokesman Kyle Sullivan.
The council is “traditionally” funded at about $650,000 annually. “Last year there was a one-time supplemental appropriation that brought its total budget up to $1 million. Facing a $1 billion-plus deficit this year, the decision was made to fund this program at its normal level,” Sullivan wrote in an e-mail.
What's also missing is any mention of where the bulk of state lottery dollars go -- to cities and towns. The dollars are not earmarked, so communities are free to spend it on their priorities.

In Stoneham's case, the town received $2,166,441 in lottery dollars. On its website, the lottery commission notes the town used FY02 revenues to reinstate two firefighter positions that were cut via an early retirement incentive program.

There is indeed pressure on the lottery to increase profits -- so it can return more money to cities and towns. There's even more pressure on the state to raise overall revenues -- with casino gambling being offered as the prime savior.

Short of those tools, it would be up to Deval Patrick and legislators to raise statewide taxes like sales, income, corporate or gasoline levies. Or cities and towns would need to raise property tax rates to finance police, fire, education and public works programs.

The Herald has long been on record against that type of action. In fact, it has long insisted the state's spending is bloated and taxes should be cut.

So how do you pay for state and municipal services that are important to quality of life? Despite the season, I don't think we should be chasing leprechauns and rainbows in search of that pot of gold.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It has been a while since I looked, but I recall that the lottery was an exceptionally regressive form of taxation. The highest per capita purchases were in lower income cities like Chelsea, while the lower amounts were in the wealthy suburbs.

I know that "regressive" versus "progressive" is in the eyes of the beholder. For example, is a gasoline tax increase regressive, compared to an increase in property taxes? The answer usually is, "It depends".

But your final point is the significant one. It is very hard to argue that garnering efficiencies in state government will reduce expenses sufficiently to balance the difference in growth between traditional revenues and the cost of maintaining essential services and repairing and renewing infrastructure.

So, new revenues are needed. It is not so much the question of "whether", but "how" that occurs for which we rely on the judgment of Gov. Patrick and the Legislature.

March 18, 2007 7:58 PM  
Blogger Outraged Liberal said...

No question the lottery is regressive and, like all gambling, it feeds mostly on the dreams of those who have the least. But we went down that road a long time ago and there's no turning back.

But lottery aid, from a revenue standpoint, does have a distinct advantage of coming without strings, which makes it a welcome addition to the municipal coffers that depend on property tax and that vile concoction known as the motor vehicle excise tax!

We need a rational discussion about tax policy and the media could help bring that about. But it's not about to happen, and contradiction such as those two stories show why. It's a lot drier subject and doesn't offer that essential element of news: conflict.

March 19, 2007 5:52 AM  
Anonymous K Busch said...

Three things need to happen: we need to stop paying for things we don't need, we need to be efficient about the things we do need, and we need enough transparency that everyone sees that. Our commonwealth needs more revenue, but it won't get it until it gets our trust. I think that's why Patrick's emphasis on transparency is so useful.

March 19, 2007 10:57 AM  
Blogger Outraged Liberal said...

Well said K Busch. But let's toss in the tough question -- who decides what we don't need? One person's pork is another's essential and except in outrageous cases (Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere) it's tough to find that line.

As for efficiency and transparency, that's certainly something worth striving for. But how many people achieve it?

Of course, that's why I'm blogging and not trying to run anything!

March 19, 2007 7:34 PM  

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