Friday, February 7, 2003

Romney's state aid cuts target poor, Democratic strongholds

Here is an analysis of the cuts levied by Gov. Mitt Romney that appeared in this week's issue of The Winchester Star:

An analysis of the state aid cuts done by The Winchester Star reveals that cuts made by Gov. Mitt Romney last week targeted at towns Romney lost in the 2002 election.

In addition, a state think tank reports that the bulk of the cuts fell on towns whose median household income is below the state average.

Of the $114 million in lottery and additional assistance cuts, 60 percent or over $68 million, were made against towns in which Romney lost to Democratic candidate Shannon O'Brien. Many of those same towns saw multi-million dollar budget cuts with large cities like Boston, Fall River, Somerville, and Worcester, being hit the hardest.

State Sen. Charlie Shannon, D-Winchester, an open supporter of O'Brien during the election, said he was not surprised that Romney would target Democratic strongholds.

"It's politics at its worse," he said, "Rather than politics for the best. I had that feeling myself. The proof is in the pudding. You have to take the time to give them enough rope - and they will hang themselves. [Democrats] told [the voters] this was the way it was going to be."

Shannon said Romney promised not to cut core services but has - noting that the school breakfast program and grants are badly needed by towns already strapped for cash.

"The kids don't need to eat in school," Shannon mocked. "Yeah, right. Children who don't have a decent meal before school can [develop] learning problems. These are core services. This [budget] is wrong."

In their study, the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center [MBPC], a Boston think tank funded by the Ford Foundation and some labor unions, revealed that 74 percent of the cuts are lodged against cities and towns where residents earn less than the median state income of $54,077, based on the 2000 Census.

Sarah Nolan, a policy analyst with MBPC, said she wasn't surprised by the data.

"It kind of goes hand in hand since [Romney] did well in the suburbs," she said. "The case is that the cities are poorer and obviously have less property wealth and tend to have less of an ability to absorb these cuts."

Nolan said she was interested in the rankings and the statewide averages of cuts when formulating her data. She then analyzed Census data to come up with the average household income. But Nolan readily admitted that there were some problems with the data since lottery aid had been skewed and most of the funding formulas were over two decades old.

"To understand this, you have to understand how local aid works," which isn't easy since "the formulas were made up a long time ago and do not take into account income but property wealth," she said. "In a lot of cases, [additional assistance] gets used for education. [The cuts force] these towns to come up with the funds."

Rep. Paul Casey, D-Winchester, said he didn't think Romney targeted Democratic or poor towns but instead, cut from towns that receive more aid than others.

"Those communities that depend on additional assistance tend to be older, Democratic communities that supported Shannon [O'Brien]," he said.

Casey, who represents both Winchester and Stoneham, said he has been criticized because Stoneham regularly receives more money than Winchester. But this time around, Stoneham received the higher cuts.

"Stoneham lost $430,000," he said. "[But] they have more assistance. When Stoneham gets more [funds], I get accused by Winchester of favoritism. Now, it is quite the reverse. Short of an immediate tax hike, there isn't any more revenue. I think [new] taxes are off the table. People seem to want some type of belt-tightening."

Belt-tightening is exactly what is on the mind of Romney, according to press secretary Shawn Feddeman.

Feddeman did not want to comment on either MBPC study or allegations that Romney targeted Democratic strongholds because she hadn't looked at the data. But she did say that no city or town received a reduction of more than 1.8 percent of their budgets and called the $114 million local aid cuts "2.5 cents of every dollar sent to cities and towns."

"The big picture is that the governor has asked every town to tightened their belts," she said. "[However], the most vulnerable citizens were not hurt under the proposal."

When asked why the bulk of the cuts were passed on to towns with residents who earned less than the median income, Feddeman said, "The legislature didn't grant the governor authority to play with the distribution formula, only a proportionate cut. So, he didn't have a ton of flexibility."