DEAR SENATOR JO: I have become increasingly concerned as the opioid crisis has gained momentum over the past few years and more and more people have become afflicted by it. As a state Senator, what do you plan to do to help address and overcome the opioid crisis?
—MICHAEL KLARE, NORTHAMPTON
DEAR MICHAEL: I share your concern about the opioid crisis and its impact on families and communities. I’ve heard from many constituents about their own experiences with addiction and their acute concern for loved ones.
I’m joining forces with providers and advocacy networks in our region who are battling this epidemic, by working to secure state budget allocations to support the work of these programs, with a special focus on funds which will directly affect the people of our region.
I also just filed legislation that is directly connected to addressing this crisis. Here are just a few of the relevant bills:
I am the lead Senate sponsor on a bill which would set up a three-year pilot project distributing and using fentanyl testing strips. In 2014, fentanyl was present in less than 30 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths; last year it was present in 90 percent of those deaths. Testing for the presence of fentanyl will help reduce fatal overdoses.
Additionally, I filed a bill that would ensure that people who are receiving behavioral health care (like that sometimes associated with addiction treatment) can continue receiving that care even if their provider is dropped from their insurance network.
And I filed a bill to help bring more medical providers like nurses, primary care clinicians or addiction treatment specialists to treat patients who live in under-served areas like rural western Massachusetts.
The gains the Legislature makes this session in terms of investing in social safety net programs, decriminalizing addiction, and increasing addiction treatment beds and services are also tied directly to efforts to address this crisis head-on.
HI JO: I just learned that we’re expecting a fairly large revenue shortfall this year as compared with projections. What impact will that have on the budget process? I’d love to know that answer, thank you!
—RISA SILVERMAN, NORTHAMPTON
HI RISA: Your question is very timely. We learned recently that state revenue collections have lagged relative to projections, leading to a $403 million Massachusetts revenue gap halfway through the fiscal year.
But that’s only one part of the story. The big picture is that state revenue has been steadily declining for years due to state policy decisions. Between 1977 and 2015, Massachusetts reduced taxes more than all but two other states. What’s more, our state and local taxes are “upside down.” On average, Massachusetts households in the top 20 percent of incomes contribute a lower percentage of their income in state and local taxes than those with low or moderate incomes.
I know I’m not alone in our region in viewing taxes as an investment in our shared services, infrastructure, and our common welfare. My wife, Ann, a social studies teacher, often refers to taxes as the dues we pay for living in a democracy. That resonates with me.
When our commonwealth generates less money in revenue, we’re more vulnerable to federal fluctuations. We also risk an austerity budgeting posture where we have less and less money to spend on critical things like education, our veterans, clean water, roads, and so much more.
I have co-sponsored the millionaire’s tax constitutional amendment, which would add a tax on income over $1 million annually. I’m also the lead Senate sponsor of two bills, one which would give cities and towns the option to tax high-end real estate to generate funding for affordable housing, and another that is a package of progressive changes to the tax code around corporate taxes and more.
In many cases, if we cut state revenue options to the bone, we often simply push the burden of taxation to the local level, where taxes can be more regressive, squeezing municipalities and putting an even greater disproportionate burden on those with lower incomes.
Lastly, it’s important for all of us to remember that we can generate revenue through good policy. For example, I am a strong supporter of legislation to implement what’s known as “carbon pricing,” which essentially puts a tax on carbon emissions to disincentivize the use of fossil fuels. Eighty percent of revenues would be returned via rebates to households and employers, targeted to low- and moderate-income households. The remaining 20 percent would be used to fund “Green New Deal” infrastructure investments in transportation, clean energy, and protection against the impacts of climate change.
Thank you to all those who sent in questions and comments. As promised, I’ll answer as many as space allows each month. Next month, I’ll respond publicly to Richard Fein’s column where he raised important questions around Medicare for All.
State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.
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