Patrick signs a painful budget

Services, programs face massive cuts; governor cites tough economy

By Noah Bierman and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / July 1, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick signed a $27.6 billion spending plan yesterday for the budget year that begins today, slashing funding for services across state government, including public education, dental care for the poor, and developmental services for toddlers.

“The pain is widespread,’’ Patrick said as he signed the budget in his office, surrounded by stoic aides. “Our budget reflects the difficult economic times.’’

Patrick blamed the tough economy, combined with a stalled round of federal stimulus money, for forcing cuts even on items he considered sacred a few months ago. The governor had submitted a budget in January that protected money for local governments and school districts. But the plan he signed yesterday cut local aid by 4 percent, or $160 million, affirming a reduction made by the House and Senate.

Many who depend on state money had been expecting a grim result, and the official signing yesterday confirmed those fears.

“That’s the difficult reality, the harsh reality, that we are in right now,’’ said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville, which is laying off 17 school custodians. “The concern is, the longer we have that, critical core services will be cut short, or in many cases decimated and eliminated.’’

As with everything this election year, Patrick’s signing of the budget immediately became political fodder, with opponents in the governor’s race accusing him of putting off tough decisions.

In addition to the 2,600 state positions previously cut during the economic downturn, the state will probably lay off hundreds of additional employees this year, said Jay Gonzalez, the secretary of administration and finance.

“I’d be surprised if it’s not more than 1,000,’’ he said.

State colleges and universities are also losing $100 million.

“There’s going to be pressure on costs for students,’’ Gonzalez said. “There are real people impacted by these cuts, and this is not an ideal budget.’’

Cuts in health care for the poor will force 218,000 people who depend on the state for dental coverage to visit community health centers for many procedures, instead of their regular dentists. About 2,000 people who now qualify for personal care attendants will lose them. Many social workers who work with the developmentally disabled will lose their jobs.

Patrick said he would work to preserve a program that provides stripped-down health plans for 24,000 legal immigrants, but only for the next six months. He said he will cover the remainder of the year if Congress approves a boost in Medicaid funding that has been stalled for months. The Legislature had cut the immigrant program entirely in its budget. By 2014, the program is expected to be restored as part of the national health care overhaul passed earlier this year.

To prevent deeper cuts, Patrick tapped the state’s depleted rainy day fund for $100 million and skipped a $95 million payment usually made to a separate reserve account in a new fiscal year.

Patrick said Massachusetts had performed better than many other states, given the recession, but his gubernatorial opponents said Patrick failed to take steps that could have averted the deep cuts and put the state in a stronger position in the coming years.

Charles D. Baker, the Republican candidate who oversaw the state’s budget in the 1990s, held a press conference an hour before Patrick signed the spending plan. He said Patrick should have streamlined more state agencies and given cities and towns greater power to curtail employee health benefits, among other steps. Baker said that Patrick’s management of the budget would eventually lead to higher taxes and that because the governor’s plan depends on $300 million in debt restructuring that has not yet passed the Legislature, it is not truly balanced.

“It’s a huge missed opportunity for the Commonwealth to dramatically change the way the state does business,’’ Baker said. “It basically continues the same game of kick the can that the state’s been playing for the last 3 1/2 years.’’

The chief budget writer in the House, Democrat Charles A. Murphy of Burlington, showed up at Baker’s press conference in front of the State House to dispute his arguments. “He’s running for governor, so God love him,’’ he said. “But a lot of what he’s talking about is disingenuous. The budget is balanced.’’

Independent candidate Timothy P. Cahill, who has recently praised Patrick’s management of the budget, also released a critical statement.

“The governor ran on hope and change in 2006, and today’s budget was built on that same hope, hope that the federal government would come through and bail out his reckless spending,’’ said Cahill, the state treasurer.

Patrick strongly rebutted the critiques. He said his budget raises spending by only 0.2 percent over last fiscal year, compared with increases of 4 percent to 5 percent when Baker was state budget chief.

Patrick and lawmakers both said the $300 million debt plan was expected to pass this week. On taxes, the governor said he had no plans to raise them, but would not explicitly rule out an increase. He said Baker’s proposal to reduce state income and sales tax rates to 5 percent would cause a calamity.

The governor officially vetoed $457 million from the Legislature’s final budget yesterday. But most of the vetoed spending, $372 million, was included by lawmakers only as contingency money that would be used if the state received about $700 million from the federal government. That money, an extension of increased Medicaid reimbursements that were part of the federal stimulus plan, now appears unlikely to materialize, and Patrick said he can no longer count on it.

Fiscal conservatives in the US Senate, including Scott Brown of Massachusetts, have blocked the funding because they say it would increase the federal deficit, though Brown said Tuesday he was working on a compromise. Social service advocates and government workers say they will continue to lobby Brown to support the funding.

Hundreds of members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, dressed in matching green T-shirts, rallied on Boston Common yesterday as Patrick was signing the budget. They chanted: “Show some guts! No more cuts!’’

“Some of the most vulnerable citizens in Massachusetts will be in danger if these budget cuts go through,’’ said Gerald W. McEntee, the union’s national president, who is in Boston for the union’s national convention. “But we won’t let the politicians balance the budget on our backs, not anymore.’’

Patrick approved language in the budget that bars illegal immigrants from receiving many state services, an issue that has become contentious in recent weeks. But the language ultimately approved by lawmakers reinforces existing practice and falls short of the more stringent crackdown passed in the state Senate in May, sparing Patrick a politically difficult decision.

“Because it does not go beyond the comprehensive set of rules and regulations we have in place today, I don’t really see there being an argument for not doing it,’’ he said.

Patrick also restored $13 million to the budget that had been cut by the Legislature, which he said would have forced a state prison to close. He also restored $6 million for the State Police, to sustain gang and drug units.

The budget also prohibits state spending on lobbyists and requires state and county offices to open on Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day.

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