A Healthy Blog

Massachusetts health care — wonky, with a healthy dose of reality

We need more revenue to continue our success

We need more revenue to continue our success

April 9, 2009
Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, M.D. testified at the hearing

Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, M.D. testified at the hearing

On Tuesday, the Joint Committee on Revenue held a hearing on the revenue ideas included in the Governor’s H1 budget proposal. Hundreds of people crowded into Gardner Auditorium to voice their support (and in some cases opposition) to new revenue streams.

HCFA testified in support of new revenue. Revenue is beyond the traditional scope of HCFA’s work, but these are extraordinary economic times requiring extraordinary efforts, and we believe that our organization cannot fulfill its mission without the state having adequate resources to continue the programs and work that consumers depend upon. This week celebrates the third anniversary of the passage of comprehensive health care reform in Massachusetts. Health reform’s success has been a direct result of shared responsibility, with consumers, employers and government all investing to ensure all residents have affordable, accessible, adequate, culturally competent care. However, we worry that in the current economic crisis, the state will not have adequate funding to fulfill its share of responsibility, and may have to back away from some of the gains we have made. HCFA joins our colleagues, including the Massachusetts Public Health Association in supporting revenue proposals in the Governor’s budget that will provide investments for public health programs. Phase II of health reform is tackling health care costs and we believe that one efficient way to reduce overall public health costs is to invest in effective public health programs. Without new revenue, HCFA is convinced that the government of the Commonwealth will not be able to support and maintain the gains that we have made in health reform.

The three specific proposals supported by HCFA were:

    1) an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and minimally-nutritious snacks, (H2701, filed by Sen. Brownsberger)
    2) removing the sales tax exemption on alcohol sold in package stores, (S759, filed by Sen. Walsh) and
    3) closing the tax loophole on non-cigarette tobacco products, (HD3951 filed by Rep. Hecht)

The hearing started with the Administration, including A&F Secretary Leslie Kirwan, Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, Department of Revenue Commissioner Navjeet Bal and Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach. Secretary Kirwan stated that the Commonwealth is facing both short and long term budget challenges. Even putting aside the current crisis, the Commonwealth still needs new revenue to balance the budget. She then spoke about the Governor’s proposal to remove the sales tax exemption for candy and sweetened beverages. The additional funds would be directed to a Wellness Fund, and be used for public health programs. The additional revenues would not expand any public health programs, but be used to maintain current programs (which have been drastically reduced by 9C cuts). Secretary Bibgy then spoke about the proposal to remove the sales tax exemption on alcohol. She stated that Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of underage and binge drinking in the nation. Commissioner Auerbach spoke about the need to remove the sales tax exemption on sugar and beverages as a way to sustain school health programs throughout the state, including violence and suicide prevention programs, and also combat obesity.

Many legislators testified in support while some testified in opposition or requested that the proposals be dealt with in ways that are fair and equitable. Some spoke in support of the room tax (Rep. Peake, Sen. Rosenberg) and some spoke in support of the removal of the exemption of the sales tax of alcohol (Sen. Walsh, Sen. Eldridge, Rep. Clark, Rep. Turner, Rep. Balser, Rep. Khan, Rep. Provost).

Mayor Menino of Boston also spoke in support of the meals tax, the telecom tax, the removal of the exemption of sales tax for alcohol and the hotel tax. Many local officials (mayors and town selectmen from all over the State) echoed Mayor Menino’s request for additional local aid.

Many experts then testified on the positive public health benefits of the repealing of the sales tax exemption for alcohol, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Of course opponents of the new revenue stream came out to testify as well. Verizon, AT&T, AIM and the Grocery Manufacturers Association and NECCO all opposed specific proposals and voiced concerns over the consistency in which potential taxes are applied to certain groups.

HCFA hopes to see these three revenue proposals included in the House budget (set to come out on Wednesday, April 15th).

- Mehreen Butt and Jessica Hamilton