To better understand the funding of our justice system, we invited Michael Widmer, the President of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, to our monthly Council meeting to educate us on topics like post-recession recovery, Massachusetts state revenue stats, and what it all means when it comes to the Massachusetts economy and our state budget.
Here’s a quick look at just some of what we learned…
- A major concern is the stability of state revenues. The bulk of the Massachusetts revenue base, which right now stands at $22 billion, comes from personal income tax – in other words, the number of people employed in Massachusetts drives our revenue. As the increased reliance on technology to perform jobs previously held by people and an aging work force shrink the job market and slow its growth, the state revenues will decrease, making it more difficult to provide funding for all aspects of state government.
- Sixty percent of the state budget goes towards non-discretionary items like healthcare, education, local aid, and debt service. The remaining forty percent of the budget gets allocated towards discretionary items, including the judiciary, education, public safety, and other areas that improve our quality of life.
- The bottom line is that we will see tighter budgeting in the upcoming years, as well as a slower growth in jobs. There will be some revenue and job growth, but it will not be a restoration to the way the economy was before.
It seems that the economy – both nationally and in Massachusetts – is still struggling, and this is likely to be “the new normal” for quite some time. A recent report titled “MTF Forecast: Modest Growth in Tax Revenues in 2014 and 2015” by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation sheds even more light on what to expect in the upcoming year.
You can imagine that Mr. Widmer’s comments got our attention. We then asked a few questions, such as: Why is Massachusetts one of the most expensive states in the nation? Part of the answer is positive, as Mr. Widmer explained. Massachusetts is a high wage state with higher incomes than most; but this high income gives Massachusetts the highest level of income disparity. Also, Massachusetts has the richest unemployment benefit structure in the US, and this is very burdensome to businesses. There are also higher energy and housing costs tied in as well.
What does this all mean for court funding, which is what we have been thinking about all year? It looks like it still won’t be clear sailing as the state strives to make up ground and stabilize its revenues and spending. Mr. Widmer had some advice for us as we continue to advocate for funding for our justice system: “stay the course.” In this kind of permanent budget squeeze, spending pressures are immense, so those who are persistent, visible, and patient – demonstrating an understanding of the budget process –are more likely to succeed. He urged us to be thankful for any amount of additional funding given the strict budget constraints.
It is true that these are difficult times for everybody, but we cannot lose hope, and we cannot stop advocating for increased funding for the courts and our entire justice system. We may not reach 100 percent in our requests, but we should celebrate what we do receive – every little bit counts.