House approves budget of $30.5b

Plan includes curb on union bargaining rights

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / April 29, 2011

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After four days of deliberations that largely took place outside public view, the Massachusetts House yesterday threw bipartisan support behind a $30.5 billion budget that included no new taxes or fees and made deep cuts to programs across state government.

The budget passed 157 to 1 just before 6 p.m., with only Andover Republican James Lyons voting to reject it. It now heads to the Senate, which will consider its own budget proposal in May.

Representative Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the final budget checked in at $25 million to $30 million below Governor Deval Patrick’s $30.6 billion plan proposed in January.

“In challenging times, we need to have the discipline to find a balance,’’ Dempsey said, describing cuts to programs and a series of savings initiatives that helped close a budget gap as the state is exhausting billions of dollars in one-time federal economic stimulus law funds.

In his closing speech before passage of the budget, Dempsey heaped praise on Republican lawmakers for working closely with Democrats — and, in the end, he won the vote of nearly all of the House’s 31 minority party members.

“I’m a believer that the pursuit of perfection should not be the enemy of the good,’’ House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. said, declaring his support and the support of the Republican caucus for the budget.

Jones cheered the inclusion of a proposal to permit Massachusetts patients to obtain coupons for their prescription drugs, a plan that nearly passed last session, but failed to get through in the final days.

He also praised the plan to curtail bargaining by municipal workers, but warned that if the budget changes significantly from the way the House approved it, he and his Republican colleagues would reconsider their votes.

During four days of start-and-stop debate, with House members sifting through and largely discarding hundreds of proposed amendments in closed meetings, the House approved about $70 million in additional spending, reauthorized a program to provide health care to recent legal immigrants, and voted overwhelmingly to repeal a ban on gifts to doctors from pharmaceutical and medical device companies.

The most closely watched vote occurred Tuesday, when members voted 111 to 42 to allow cities and towns to slash local labor unions’ power to bargain health care copays and deductibles, an effort to take pressure off local government budgets.

The vote drew a vigorous union backlash and a promise from labor officials that they would be heavily lobbying the Senate to soften the proposal.

After debate, House Democrats deflected an attempt by Republicans to roll back the state income tax to 5 percent over the next three years, and a variety of other attempts by the GOP to cut taxes were quashed more quietly.

A similar attempt by Republicans to eliminate Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day as Suffolk County holidays was also scuttled.

The House also adopted a Republican-backed plan to require half of all reversions — leftover funds at the end of a fiscal year — to be sent to cities and towns as local aid, a move they said could backfill the local aid account to prevent municipalities from feeling the $65 million cut that lawmakers and the governor have contended will be necessary to balance the budget.