It has been said that all politics are local, yet our budget problems have to be put in a broader national context.
In addition, when we look at Framingham in a historical context, the democratic process is failing us –for reasons given below.
Maybe some of you had the opportunity to see a CBS report this past Sunday pointing out that Massachusetts was among the top 13 states in the nation having serious problems with state debt.
Although CBS made no reference to its source, one can obtain similar information using the internet.
State Budget Solutions, which follows the debt of all states, ranked California as the first state in the nation when it comes to debt problems.
According to the same source, Massachusetts ranks seventh in the nation when it comes to debt-per-capita ranking. The Commonwealth had a total debt of about 20 billion dollars for fiscal year 2011. The proposed increase in debt for fiscal year 2013 will be over 1 billion dollars.
It seems that people in town forget that we are citizens of the United States of America - which now has a national debt to GDP ratio of over 100 percent. We are also citizens of Massachusetts, and the state is not doing well with regard to debt.
According to the most recent figures available to Moody’s, Massachusetts ranks second in the nation when it comes to net tax-supported debt as a percent of personal income (for 2009) and first in the nation in terms of net tax-supported debt as a percent of gross state domestic product (for 2011): while the median for the nation was 3.94 percent, it was 8.62 percent for Massachusetts.
Now, there may be a lot to be said for large expenditures and heavy debt in our state, since we are providing many dollars of services to the non-profit institutions that make our state famous. Recall that we are known for educational, medical and social service institutions that pay very little in taxes But the question that we have to address in Town Meeting is whether our local government equally deserves more tax dollars and an increasing debt. Remember that the federal government and state governments provide funding for local services; but as we have seen, the funding behaviors of these entities are not sustainable. We are going to have to pay a heavier and heavier tax burden unless we do something about our expenditures and debt.
Town Meeting is supposed to represent the will of the people. Maybe we want to spend more. But do you think that Town Meeting members represent the will of the people when fewer than 10 percent of registered voters show up at the polls?
Someone has argued that people could show up at the polls, if they wanted to. But then, how do you explain previous participation rates at elections, relative to the more recent participation rates? Even the most tyrannical regimes in the world can produce 10 percent of the population showing up for mock elections, since there are always people who have something to gain by maintaining the status quo. The rest do not show up because they know that they are not going to be heard. They know that the bureaucracy in power will subvert whatever is proposed, with the assistance of lawyers always ready to give opinions in defense of the status quo.
The only way we can change our democratic process is by making it meaningful. Let’s take a look at some simple statistics, derived from official state sources. In 1950, the Framingham town elections drew 58 percent of registered voters; for 1970, 44 percent of registered voters; for 1990, 43 percent of registered voters, and even as late as 2000, 25 percent of the voters showed up to vote. In 2004, the figure had dropped to 10 percent of the registered voters, the sort of experience we had this year. Framingham is experiencing meaningless elections, because if something goes wrong, like the assessment process, all that happens is that the Administration asks for more funds for those departments performing poorly.
Do you think that people are really happy with the way that Town government is conducted in Framingham? It is for this reason that this body should instruct the Government Study Committee (and other committees) to come up with rules that can really change our democratic process.
One such rule is the one that has been proposed by the citizen’s petition presented under Article 38.
Another rule would be to have fewer elections - but meaningful elections - where all the incumbents can be voted down or out. (Electing one third of a board every three years will not do that.)
In the financial arena, we must take the bull by the horns and decide first our total expenditures, and then allocate departmental budgets in the best possible way. The opposition to this process is the entrenched bureaucracy. All it wants is additional expenditures to increase its budget, regardless of performance.
I urge you to vote for real change in Town Meeting. If not now, when?