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Senate budget proposal would devastate education

The Senate Ways and Means budget proposal to slash local aid by more than a third would devastate public schools and other local services, hurting future prospects for our students, slowing our economic recovery and damaging the quality of life in our communities. It should now be clear that we need a balanced approach to the state budget -- one that includes new revenues.

The Senate Ways and Means proposal would cut non-school local aid by $484 million (37 percent) from the amount originally approved for fiscal year 2009, in addition to cutting $79 million in Chapter 70 school aid and making major reductions in education grant programs. Although the plan calls for using federal stimulus dollars to keep districts at their "foundation" budget levels, schools and other local services will still face a net loss of hundreds of millions of dollars under the Senate proposal unless the state approves new revenues.

The budget proposal also calls for using stimulus funds to level-fund public higher education campuses at their FY09 levels, but that only delays a major crisis since the state is now anticipating using stimulus funds at a far faster rate than the governor originally proposed. In addition, the budget would require all state employees, including those working in public higher education, to pay 30 percent of their health insurance premiums, effectively doubling those costs for most state workers.

State leaders face hard choices in light of the massive budget gap. They have already made deep spending cuts, tapped the rainy day fund and used federal stimulus money. But it's not enough, as this Senate proposal shows. The cuts that loom if no new revenues are approved will be unacceptably deep, causing long-term damage to public education and other services across the state.

The House of Representatives took the courageous step of approving an increase in the sales tax. While it is unfortunate that the Senate Ways and Means budget does not include any new revenues, we urge senators to propose and approve amendments to the plan that will raise the funds needed to maintain quality public services. If large numbers of schools are shuttered, programs dismantled and teachers laid off, it will be hugely disruptive to students and very costly to restore educational programs in the future.

Cities and towns are constrained by Proposition 2 1/2 from raising revenues locally, so they must rely on legislators to have the foresight and political courage needed to stop the cuts, increase revenues and protect local aid.

Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society" Lawmakers must recognize that it is time to protect the education services that are at the heart of all enduring civilized societies.