Since the common resident will never see $32 million, never mind $32 billion, the whole concept of multiple billions of dollars is foreign to most. Just thinking of money on such a grand scale is enough to make most people’s heads spin and eyes gloss over. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center can help.
Thirty-two billion, 118 million, 428 thousand. Dollars.
That’s a difficult number for people to wrap their brains around. Since the common resident will never see $32 million, never mind $32 billion, the whole concept of multiple billions of dollars is foreign to most. Where does it come from? Where does it go? How is it tracked and organized? Just thinking of money on such a grand scale is enough to make most people’s heads spin and eyes gloss over.
But living in a democratic society requires residents to take an active role in their government, and that includes monitoring how elected officials are handling their money. In Massachusetts, that means finding a way to comprehend a $32.1 billion annual budget.
It is no easy task. Even those elected or appointed to office can have difficulty following the money and the rules and regulations attached to it. The latest example involves federal stimulus money, which is funneled through the commonwealth. Fall River will receive $5.1 million in stimulus funds for education, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That’s great news for a city strapped for cash and facing the prospect of deep pay cuts or mass layoffs. But it also means figuring out how the city is allowed to use it. Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown said her interpretation is that she can use the money to retain teachers, averting layoffs at least for this year. That’s even better news, but the fact that she had to interpret the money’s use is indicative of how difficult it is to keep tabs on government spending. If experienced school administrators have difficulty doing so, how do average residents stand a chance?
That’s where the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center steps in. The non-profit, independent organization analyzes the state budget in-depth and breaks it down for news organizations, local leaders and residents to more easily understand. The group looks at each phase of the budget as it makes its way through the legislative approval and executive veto process, allowing residents to study where each branch of government’s spending priorities lie.
“Ordinary people need more information about state government, which the government doesn’t always provide,” said Noah Berger, executive director of Mass. Budget.
The center provides residents that information and allows them to conduct their own research with the Budget Browser on its Web site, www.massbudget.org. Anyone can easily review current and past budgeting, see how the Legislature and governor tweaked spending and taxing as the plan made its way through the process, search line items and specific department budgets and compare current taxing and spending trends against those of the past.
Residents are able to see for themselves how governmental policy impacts spending and how trends have changed over time. For instance, many don’t realize that the commonwealth’s “Taxachusetts” nickname no longer applies. A quick scan through Mass. Budget’s Web site reveals that Massachusetts’ tax rates have dropped over the years and the commonwealth is now below the national average in percentage of income taken by state and local taxes. In fact, of the 49 other states, 35 tax residents at a higher percentage than Massachusetts.
Residents can easily see how their leaders have handled — and, in some cases, mismanaged — their tax dollars. They can see how Massachusetts leaders squandered major surpluses during the boom years, failing to prepare for the rainy days the state now faces, resulting in this year’s $5 billion budget gap plugged by increased taxes and steep cuts to state aid and other spending that has trickled down and caused fiscal crises in munisipalities.
“The shock (of the deep recession) means maybe next time we should plan a little better,” Berger said.
You can’t plan ahead if you don’t have all the information. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center puts that information at residents’ fingertips.
The Herald News