|Senator Panagiotakos backs measures to prevent immigrants from receiving state services. Governor Patrick favors putting current practices into law, but would not like to go further. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)|
Budget would cut services, local aid
Lawmakers’ plan eases crackdown on illegal immigrants
State lawmakers last night completed a $27.6 billion budget plan for next fiscal year that would cut local aid for cities and towns, require all government offices to remain open on Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day, and impose a softer crackdown on illegal immigrants than the measure approved by senators last month.
A group of six House and Senate negotiators had been hammering out the final budget, which includes a broad range of policy and spending plans, behind closed doors since June 7, trying to reconcile differences between plans passed earlier this year by the two legislative bodies.
But the lawmakers were thrown off course in recent days as they were forced to plug an additional $687 million gap to account for federal stimulus money that had been expected to keep some state programs afloat, but is now far from certain to arrive.
“We are, I would suggest, under no illusion that this . . . money is coming,’’ said Representative Charles A. Murphy, a Burlington Democrat who leads the House Ways and Means Committee.
The budget features cuts in social services, the court system, higher education, and nearly every other aspect of state government. That includes complete elimination of a $56 million program that gives health care to low-income immigrants who are considered legal, but not permanent, residents, plus another $68 million from other health programs for low-income residents covered under MassHealth, the state Medicaid program.
Some programs could be restored, or partially restored, if the additional federal stimulus money is approved in Congress. To avoid deeper cuts, lawmakers also called for withdrawing $100 million from the state’s rainy day fund, a move they had earlier pledged not to make because the fund has been tapped with regularity in recent years.
Both the House and Senate are expected to vote today on the budget. The fiscal year begins July 1.
Lawmakers decided not to impose some of the stricter immigration measures that passed the Senate with great fanfare last month, including the establishment of a 24-hour hot line to report companies that hire illegal immigrants and a requirement that the attorney general begin discussions with federal officials to offer help in enforcing immigration laws. Instead, lawmakers said, they decided to make official current practices that bar illegal immigrants from receiving state services .
A group of opponents to the Senate measure, called the Student Immigration Movement, has been holding around-the-clock vigils outside the State House for 17 days in protest. But polls have generally shown that much of the public favors stricter immigration enforcement.
Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said many residents are unaware that current state practices already keep immigrants from receiving state services and that putting those practices into law will ensure they remain enforced, while also bringing attention to them. Though illegal immigrants are currently barred from receiving in-state college tuition, the compromise language would not put that practice into law.
Governor Deval Patrick, who is running for reelection against two opponents who favor stricter immigration enforcement, must sign off on the budget before any of the immigration measures agreed to last night become law. He has said he favors putting current practices into law, but would not like to go further than that.
The budget compromise submitted last night also includes a measure that would give the state’s top administrative judge some power over the Probation Department’s budget, an issue that emerged last month after the Globe Spotlight Team chronicled widespread patronage hiring and lax spending controls at the agency. The measure would eliminate the lifetime appointment for any future, but not the current, commissioner of the department and initiate a study on who should ultimately oversee it.
The budget compromise left out language passed in the Senate that would have given cities and towns more power to curb the fast-rising costs of employee health plans, by giving them the authority to amend employee health plans without union approval. Municipal leaders have been demanding the changes, saying health costs are busting their budgets, but unions have fought the changes; many lawmakers have also been resistant, saying they do not want to weaken collective bargaining.
The provision requiring government offices to remain open on Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day would not affect collective bargaining agreements; union members with those days off under their contracts would still get them.
The City of Boston also stands to lose at least $2.4 million more in library funding if, as planned, it closes four branches during the next budget year. The Legislature’s compromise plan includes language taking that money away to prevent closings, even though the city says it is forced to close the branches largely because state funding has been declining in recent years.
Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.