By Gintautas Dumcius and Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Capping a nearly $10 billion increase in state spending under his tenure, Gov. Deval Patrick on Friday signed a $36.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2015, slashing $16.1 million with his veto pen and asking lawmakers to give him the power to make unilateral spending cuts if necessary.
Patrick sliced earmarks for the Department of Correction, the Executive Office of Administration and Finance and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, among others. Vetoes ranged from $2.2 million for municipalities hosting DOC facilities and $20,000 for the operation of a school library pilot program in Tewksbury to $100,000 in Senate President Therese Murray's hometown for the creation of street crime unit in the Plymouth police department and $170,000 for Plymouth to update its radiological response and recovery plan.
>>> For video of Patrick's remarks on the budget and his vetoes, go to: http://www.statehousenews.
Patrick also filed a budget proposal to wrap up fiscal year 2014, and in it asked for the ability to reduce local aid and spending for fiscal 2015 across all state agencies and constitutional offices, except the Legislature and the Judiciary, if the Executive Office of Administration and Finance determines budgeted revenues are falling short or unexpected expenses require making room in the budget for additional spending requests. The budget-cutting powers would apply to district attorneys, the sheriffs and independent agencies like the inspector general's office.
With a new governor scheduled to take over in January, the budget-cutting powers would expire after December.
Governors over the years have usually sought special budget-cutting powers once fiscal problems have occurred. A top Patrick deputy said no particular concern was driving the administration's request.
"We're not presuming any needs at this point but we want the tools to be able, as the budget evolves and needs evolve over the course of the year, to make room to ensure that we can have a balanced budget," said Glen Shor, Patrick's budget chief.
The supplemental budget also includes $32 million for snow and ice costs incurred during fiscal year 2014, and $10 million for reforms and additional clinical staff at Bridgewater State Hospital.
Sen. Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat who heads the Senate's budget-writing committee, said he will "reserve judgment" on the governor's request for budget-cutting powers. Legislators have given that kind of power to governors only in a "very, very grim circumstance," Brewer said.
There are 20 days left on the formal legislating calendar, and Brewer said handing the governor expanded powers is not an issue that lends itself to the informal sessions that will follow.
Brewer said it will be up to the Senate president and House Speaker Robert DeLeo to decide which budget vetoes will be overridden before the end of July. "We signed off on the budget we believed," Brewer said.
The fiscal 2015 budget is Patrick's eighth and last, since he opted against running for a third term. In 2007, his first year in office, the annual budget he signed weighed in at $26.8 billion. Patrick made spending cuts during the deep recession that hit during his first term in office, but also raised numerous taxes, including the sales tax, and the Milton Democrat is capping his run by touting investments in education, infrastructure and innovation initiatives.
The budget increases state spending by 5.5 percent, with critics warning that increases in spending on subsidized health insurance programs bear careful monitoring since those accounts are so large and dependent on federal revenue-sharing. Areas of investment in the budget include child welfare and protection, substance abuse services, early education and higher education, and $200,000 to establish a state climatologist office. The budget includes $153 million in additional funding for human services providers and restores coverage of denture benefits for adult MassHealth members. Extended learning time grants rise by $450,000, to $14.7 million under the budget law.
Asked if there was an area where he wished he had made more progress over the years, Patrick pointed to an issue and a promise that was part of his campaign platform in 2006: reducing property taxes.
"And I've appreciated all along that in order for that to happen, we were going to have to give more tools to cities and towns to cut their costs, and we have done that, the municipal health reform being just one example, and to deliver more resources," Patrick said. "But there are decisions that have to be made at the local level around those tax rates and I think that story is mixed."
The newly inked budget contains no new taxes, includes an amnesty program aimed at collecting overdue taxes without applying penalties, and relies on $73 million in revenues from casinos. There are some doubts about the casino revenues now that a ballot question repealing the casino law has been cleared for a November vote.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones, who offered the amnesty program initiative, predicted it will bring in $35 million in overdue taxes, noting three similar programs dating back to 2003 garnered a collective $167 million.
Patrick said the budget sent over by the Legislature was "very consistent" with what he proposed in January, particularly in the area of education, with $100 million in additional local education aid, also known as Chapter 70. The funding level for that program now stands at $4.4 billion. The budget also reestablishes a foundation budget review commission to examine the adequacy of Chapter 70 funding.
The budget includes a $140 million withdrawal from the state's rainy day fund and stops the practice of paying for transportation staffers with capital dollars, which Patrick compared to "paying someone's salary with a credit card."
Patrick vetoed several outside sections, including one that increases penalties for heroin trafficking because "it imposes disproportionate maximum penalties" and another that sought to remove the MBTA retirement system fund and its board, as well as similar entities from the purview of the state's public records law.
Patrick also vetoed a section directing the Department of Environmental Protection to establish regulations for determining the suitability of soil used as fill material in the reclamation of quarries, sand pits and gravel pits. Patrick said the section imposed "unnecessary regulatory burdens on businesses."
Budget language extending higher Medicaid reimbursement rates for Franciscan Children's Hospital in Brighton was also vetoed because, Patrick said, it inappropriately extends the rates until 2021.
In budget amendments sent to the Legislature, Patrick sought to amend a section giving a $22,718 raise to district attorneys and the chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Patrick said he supports the raises, but asked for lawmakers to sign off on a commission to study the salaries of assistant district attorneys and CPCS staff attorneys and report back by November 15.
"These dedicated public servants deserve a salary reflective of their indispensable contribution to the Commonwealth and the fair and equitable dispensation of justice in our courts," Patrick wrote. "At present, though, they earn far less than their counterparts in comparative jurisdictions."
Patrick disagreed with the Legislature's move to annually send $5 million a year to the remaining county governments. Roughly 20 years ago, the Legislature abolished seven of 12 county governments.
"I agree that the remaining county governments have significant financial challenges, but I respectfully suggest that the Legislature has selected the wrong remedy," Patrick wrote.
In his amendment, Patrick proposed enhancing the powers of the Department of Revenue's division of local services to monitor county finances and providing his budget chief with the ability to intervene when "it is necessary to ensure responsible spending within existing revenues."
Patrick veto/amendment details: