NEWS

DiMasi: State will ‘do more with less’

James Fuccione

The guest speaker of State Rep. Jay R. Kaufman’s recent Open House said his favorite part was a compliment from a LexMedia cameraman.

“He said, ‘I just came here to do video, but after hearing you talk, I feel reassured,” said Massachusetts House of Representatives Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. “That felt good.”

DiMasi was in Lexington Thursday night as the guest for Kaufman’s public policy forum. He addressed about 40 residents at the Lexington Depot, covering the state’s financial status, energy, the governor’s recent tax cuts, and education.

Paul Garmon, the man who paid DiMasi the compliment, said he also felt better seeing that DiMasi understands budget cuts are not simply numbers — they affect people’s lives.

Following an introduction from Kaufman, DiMasi began with explaining some of the work in what he called one of the most productive legislative sessions in the last three decades.

“We’ve done an awful lot in the arena of energy,” he said while highlighting the Green Communities Act, among other laws recently passed. “The combination of legislation we passed will forever change the way we look at energy.”

“I think you should know we have the highest concentration of Priuses anywhere in the country,” said Kaufman of his hometown.

DiMasi noted that producing so-called “green jobs” will help to stimulate the economy and is part of why Massachusetts is better situated to handle the current crisis than many other states. He said the Commonwealth’s higher education resources, health care, and diverse economy also help.

He added that Beacon Hill is committed to preserving local aid, though if the downward trend persists, cutting local aid will not be out of the question. This week, Gov. Deval Patrick was cut more than $900 million in fiscal year 2009 spending because of a budget that is $1.4 billion overbalanced. This fiscal year’s state budget is $28.2 billion.

DiMasi said he and Senate President Therese Murray have voluntarily cut their own budgets by 10 percent and have encouraged other state government entities to do the same.

“We don’t want to exacerbate the problem by not doing anything,” DiMasi said.

An additional piece of the state’s solution is to borrow money from its $2.23 billion rainy day account, but experts have advised not to subtract too much at once for fear that it will impact Massachusetts’ bond rating. This legislative session alone, DiMasi explained, there have been approved bond bills for transportation, education and the environment that will help keep people employed. There has also been heavy investment in bringing biotechnology companies to Massachusetts and a letter is being prepared for Congress asking for a state bailout plan to match growing needs that state governments face.

DiMasi again acknowledged the cuts are causing a lot of pain, but said “we have to move forward and we have to be responsible.”

“We have to do more with less,” added DiMasi. “We will do all we can to make decisions in the best interests of you.”

The question-and-answer portion brought topics from unfunded mandates to ballot Question 1 (the repeal od the state income tax), the National Popular Vote initiative and the meals tax. Each was fielded by DiMasi or Kaufman.

“We need to be creative,” said Kaufman. “There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Only one question stumped DiMasi. Regarding cuts to Special Education, DiMasi said he was unaware of every item included in the cuts. It was later answered with help from aides and members of the audience. Such funding was not cut per se, but rather the increase provided over last year’s funding in the most recent budget was rescinded.

After the forum ended, many were pleased that action is being taken and that Massachusetts is positioned well for dealing with the nation’s financial crisis. However the warning was clear that more could be on the way.

“I am worried, but not fearful like I was,” said Suzanne Kouri of Lexington who inquired about special education.