On April 2, Gardner Auditorium buzzed as the Joint Committee of Ways and Means met to hold a public hearing to discuss the 2020 fiscal year budget. The committee is made up of 52 House and Senate members whose job is to analyze all matters pertaining to the Commonwealth’s finances.
“We view the budget as much more than just numbers in a giant spreadsheet. It represents critical services, programs and opportunities for millions of our fellow residents all across Massachusetts,” Senator Jason M. Lewis, who co-chaired the hearing with House member Denise C. Garlick, said.
Roughly four hours worth of testimonials from organizations followed. This included statements from the American Red Cross, Deaf Incorporated, Mass Association for the Deaf, Cumberland Farms, The New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and The Disability Consortium.
The subjects of the day ranged from disability support, to teen homelessness, social service worker compensation, and stamp taxing. Each panel pleaded their case pertaining to funding choices for the upcoming fiscal year.
One panel member was Jonathan LeJunn, a deaf resident of Massachusetts. He was a participant in a four person panel testifying against the budget cuts of deaf and hard of hearing peoples’ services. He sat alongside members of Deaf Inc. as well as DeafBlind Community Access Network.
“My dad was killed by a car accident,” LeJunn said. “He was hit as a pedestrian, my sister was pregnant at the time, and she was hit…Now when you talk about a budget cut, I’m encouraging you not to do so. And the fear is because I don’t want to lose my independence. I don’t want to lose the benefits for my children. I’ve seen my parents and family… die as a result of the budget cuts.”
Later on, Matthew Kelly, a hearing child of deaf parents who is affiliated with Deaf Inc. testified, asking the committee to increase the funding for the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. He said that services are diminishing because of staffing shortages. He was joined by Duval Brown, a beneficiary of Deaf Inc. services.
Brown communicated through a sign language translator stating he was homeless as a result of being deaf. He was in a homeless shelter where his phone was stolen and in a state of despair when Deaf Inc. was able to help him find safe housing.
Ronald Bergenheimer, from Deaf Inc., also communicating through a translator, asked to raise $325,000 for Deaf Inc. services.
On another panel, Lenny Summerville spoke on behalf of the Independent Living and Housing Advocacy Leadership Team. Summerville asked that the Alternative Housing Program be funded at $8 million dollars. She was followed by Sandy Novak, a disabled resident, who spoke of the immense difficulties disabled individuals face everyday – including when trying to find a home.
“One salesperson compared me and others with disabilities to dogs… He failed to understand that there is no one size fits all apartments for people with a wide range of disabilities.”
Chris Hoeh, Advocacy Representative for the Greater Boston Chapter of United Spinal Association, spoke in favor of increasing the funding for the affordable housing voucher program.
“I just want to say, ambulatory people think that those of us in wheelchairs just want to walk. But we’re human beings who have the same needs as others. And safe housing in our communities is at the top of that need…I’m not going to walk. But I do need a place to live.”
Later on, Matthew Durant, or Cumberland Farms, took the stand in opposition of the tax stamping of smokeless tobacco products. Durant said that by requiring them to open the packaging, apply the stamps, and put the contents back into new packaging, the state would categorize himself, and others in his position, as managers of tobacco products under FDA regulations.
“As you can imagine, that carries a wide ranging variety of certain requirements, fees, and other compliance obligations that were never intended to apply to brick and mortar retailers.”
John Share, Executive Director of The New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, also testified against a tax – this time opposing the Governor’s budget imposing a 13.75 percent excise tax on retail sales of E- cigarettes and 40 percent wholesale tax on e-vapor products. He said that this would cause a surge in the price of these products, making them less accessible to those who are turning to them in an attempt to quit smoking.
Others on the panel added that the tax could put many employees out of work if businesses were to decline in sales due to higher prices and a fear of purchases moving over to the black market.
This was met with great opposition from the committee including Representative Michael J. Barrett.
“I find it amusing because this is the same argument we’ve all heard before about talking about raising the taxes on cigarettes, there would be a decline and all of these other things are going on, and I think one of the reasons that you’re coming forward now is this is a big profit maker for your stores. You know, when you talk about kids and lives that are being impacted by this, I think it’s a disgrace. And we have to handle it a different way.”
Emotions ran high in the auditorium as several of those who testified cried as they shared personal experiences and many Committee members were direct with questioning.
The budget hearing on April 2 is one of several held by the Joint Ways and Means Committee. After the completion of these hearings, and examination of the Governor’s Proposal, the Committee will release its own recommendations to be put before the House of Representatives for consideration. Final budget results are not yet available but will be updated on mass.gov when they’re announced.