Baker's cuts hurt food pantries and other programs
Editor's note: This article was modified on Dec. 15, 2016, to correct the amount of funds cut from the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program. Gov. Charlie Baker's 9c cuts eliminated $665,000 from the MEFAP budget, as opposed to $650,000 that was originally given as the amount.
That's about how much the $665,000 cut to the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program represents out of Gov. Baker's $98 million in state budget cuts announced on Tuesday.
This amounts to less meals all over the state, including in Western Massachusetts, where about 211,000 people struggle with hunger and food insecurity, said Berkshire County Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield.
"There will be less support for our local food pantries ... at a time when more people are coming to those food pantries," he said. "Those are meals ... that will not be served."
Like other politicians in Berkshire County, Downing said he's frustrated by the cuts. They're not justified when other choices could be made to make up the state's $300 million budget gap, including cutting earmarks in less essential areas or increasing the state income tax that was reduced last year, he said.
"The places [Baker] has chosen to cut are precisely the places that should have been protected," he said.
The cuts will also take about $50,000 in administrative funding from the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, a place Downing described as the fabric of the Berkshires.
"I don't understand the justification for it," he said. "We ought to come up with another way to support what is a model community-based organization. I think it's irresponsible just to hack away at their funding."
That funding for the coalition, unlike other state earmarks and grants, supports the daily work required to implement and design community programming through things like monthly forums, social media outreach and relationship-building, said Amber Besaw, interim executive director of the NBCC. The coalition would dip into its reserve funding if necessary to ensure the quality of their programs, but that model isn't sustainable if the cut continues in upcoming years, she said.
"It's 50,000 out of our budget that we plan on and we anticipate," she said.
Baker exercised his emergency powers to make $98 million from a $39.25 billion state budget 9C cuts — cuts to executive branch agencies only — in an effort to balance the budget. November tax collections put the state $22 million below revenue benchmarks five months into the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Many service agencies like the NBCC have been put in a difficult position, said 2nd Berkshire District Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru. They haven't gotten clear information regarding what cuts they sustained, if any.
"People don't know what's happening," he said.
Many politicians who do have an understanding of the cuts — like Mark — say that they were made at the wrong time with more urgency than revenue benchmarks required.
"When we're just slightly under the benchmarks, there's no reason not to wait a couple of weeks," Mark said. Formal legislative sessions begin in January.
Mark said he's received emails from constituents asking him to help restore the cuts, but he's relatively powerless until sessions start.
"I think he did this prematurely," said 4th Berkshire District Rep.William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "Revenues are sluggish, and they have been sluggish. I don't want to discount that." Pignatelli said his district suffered no cuts to its specific earmarks.
The state legislature as a whole believes the cuts were unnecessary, Downing said. Many are prepared to attempt to restore the cuts in the next legislative session, he said.
The cuts seem to be politically motivated, said Mark.
Mark said he's been going through Baker's 9C cuts and sees a pattern of cuts that seems to correspond with the items that Baker vetoed in the budget passed in July, before the Legislature subsequently overrode the vetoes.
"This is a purely politically and backdoor way to sustain his original vetoes, which the Legislature previously overrode, while protecting his buddies," Mark said in an email. "The governor is putting partisan politics ahead of the needs of Western Massachusetts."
Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.
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