Gov. Patrick vetoes key transportation, local aid money in state budget

Governor Deval Patrick signed into law the $33.6 billion annual state budget Friday, but used his veto powers to slash $240 million in transportation funding and $177 million in aid for cities and towns, a move that provoked an immediate outcry from local officials and state lawmakers.

Patrick’s vetoes hit the programs most cherished by mayors and lawmakers—basic money for roads, buses, and municipal services—and threatened to deepen his standoff with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. Those leaders indicated they will move swiftly to override the governor’s vetoes.

The $177 million cut in local aid amounts to a 20 percent reduction in that account, which pays for teachers, police officers, firefighters and trash collectors. One advocate for cities and towns said the reduction would pare the program back to 1986 levels and lead to “thousands” of layoffs. The transportation veto includes a $115 million cut in funding for the MBTA—about 10 percent of the agency’s operating budget—and would lead to service cuts or fare increases, state officials said.

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Local officials expressed outrage at the vetoes, saying their communities were being held hostage as part of a long-running tax battle between the governor and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature.

“There’s been a chess game going on between the governor and the Legislature and, in this particular instance, cities and towns are the pawns,” said Mayor Michael D. Bissonnette of Chicopee.

Patrick argued that he had no other choice but to chop the programs because legislators have not yet approved a large tax increase that he says is necessary to balance the budget and expand the state’s long-neglected roads, rails, and bridges. His vetoes represent one of the last options he has to pressure lawmakers into considering that larger tax hike.

“This action will come as no surprise,” he said at a press conference at the State House. “I have never signed a budget that is out of balance, and I’m not about to start to do so.”

House leaders on Friday indicated they would override the vetoes next week and send the governor a $500 million tax increase to balance the budget. That tax increase, however, is smaller than the tax hike Patrick is requesting.

“The House of Representatives will protect the cities and towns of Massachusetts,” Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement. “We passed a budget that addresses key transportation needs, provides funding to our municipalities and makes key investments in higher education and community colleges, and we will again vote next week to maintain that commitment.”

Senate President Therese Murray said the Senate would also hold firm at $500 million in higher taxes.

“I fully respect the governor’s authority to veto or amend any piece of legislation the Legislature sends him, including the state budget,” she said in a statement. “I look forward to bringing the amended bill to the Senate floor for a debate and vote on Thursday.”

By wielding his veto pen to cut programs vital to every city and town, Patrick is using one of his last available powers to try to push lawmakers into approving a larger tax hike. In addition to the deep cuts he made in transportation and local aid, he made surgical reductions that will affect a range of constituencies.

His vetoes cut money for the State Police, substance abuse services, and grants for cities and towns, including the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the town of Plymouth, Murray’s hometown. A $200,000 postpartum depression program would be eliminated completely.

But if the vetoes were designed to provoke lawmakers into taking another look at Patrick’s plan for higher taxes, that strategy was not working Friday. “I don’t think it changes the dynamic one bit,” said Senator Stephen M. Brewer, the Senate’s budget chief. “He did what he had to do, and we will do what we have to do, respectfully.”

DeLeo and Murray have said they are willing to accept a $500 million increase in gas and tobacco taxes, to stabilize the finances of the state’s transit agencies. Both have said they have veto-proof majorities to push through that tax hike, despite the governor’s opposition, and override his budget vetoes, as well.

At that point, all parties agree, this year’s budget will be balanced.

Patrick still hopes lawmakers will increase the gas tax even further to fund an array of transit projects years into the future. He says those projects are critical to the economic health of the state. “I am willing to work with an $800 million transportation bill,” Patrick said. “But, like I said, it has to be real.”

Legislative leaders, however, have roundly rejected Patrick’s tax plan, saying their tax hike goes far enough. Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said legislative leaders appear poised to prevail in the tax-and-veto struggle.

“I think the script is written and the funds will in fact be there,” Widmer said. “All the parties are playing their parts, but I think it will play out in a way that these cuts will not in fact materialize.”

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents local officials, was not taking any overrides for granted, however. On Friday, he stood outside the governor’s office, warning of thousands of layoffs, and said he would urge lawmakers to restore all the local aid money for cities and towns.

“This would be a deep and unprecedented cut in local aid,” he said. “There will be negative implications all throughout the state.”