Hub residents air budget cut worries at Roxbury forum

Reynolds D. Graves | 5/20/2009, 4:31 a.m.

With Massachusetts feeling the effects of the nationwide economic crisis, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz hosted a community forum in Roxbury last Thursday evening to hear constituents’ concerns and shed some light on the slashed state budget now making its way through the Legislature.

Chang-Díaz, a first-term Democrat who ousted longtime incumbent Dianne Wilkerson from the Second Suffolk District seat last fall, kicked off the meeting at the Roxbury YMCA with a PowerPoint presentation on the state of the Massachusetts budget, the Commonwealth’s fiscal health and its future.

Citing figures provided by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, where Chang-Díaz formerly served as director of outreach, the presentation detailed the various items funded by state revenues, including education, transportation, libraries, parks and recreation, affordable housing and human services.

The senator then described how lower-than-expected revenue collections have impacted the state’s budget situation — namely, how they contributed to a structural budget gap of $5 billion in fiscal year 2009 that led to rounds of so-called “9C cuts” in October 2008 and January 2009. (The cuts are named after Section 9C of Chapter 29 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which allows mid-year cuts in spending; governors use the provision to comply with the state law mandating that the budget be brought into balance when projected revenue falls short of projected spending.)

During a question-and-answer session following Chang-Díaz’s presentation, Gov. Deval Patrick and state Rep. Gloria L. Fox also fielded audience questions about budget priorities. City Councilor-at-Large Sam Yoon, a Boston mayoral hopeful this fall, joined the elected officials on the panel as well.

A variety of community interests and organizations attended the meeting, most notably the purple-and-yellow-T-shirt clad members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199, who were representing the United Healthcare Workers East, a group of 33,000 health care workers in Massachusetts.

The union members expressed concern that reduced state revenues could further damage — and possibly even lead to the closing of — Boston Medical Center (BMC), the area’s major “safety net” hospital providing care to low-income and minority residents.

A woman who identified herself as Elsa, a nurse at BMC and an SEIU member, asked the elected officials how they planned to raise revenues to keep the medical center operational, and make up for the budget cuts that will affect vulnerable people from the community.

In his response, Patrick noted that BMC is one of the few entities in the state with significant reserves — the hospital has approximately $400 million saved, according to the governor — and that the health care industry is the single largest recipient of state revenues.

The governor announced in March that BMC would receive more than $140 million in federal stimulus funding over the next two years, including $64 million this year for services it provided in fiscal year 2008 to low-income patients. BMC President Elaine Ullian told The Boston Globe at the time that the hospital has suffered significant cuts in state reimbursement for treating the poor, that it expects more cuts, and that the stimulus influx wouldn’t be enough to close its budget gap.