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Gov. Patrick unveils $30.5B Mass. budget plan

STEVE LEBLANC

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick unveiled his state budget for the 2012 fiscal year, a spending plan that would dip deeper into the state’s rainy day fund to help close a projected $1.5 billion spending gap, but avoid new taxes while making cuts to state services.

The budget proposal totals $30.5 billion. It would end some state programs and eliminate 900 positions from the state work force.

The governor has already told cities and towns to brace for a $65 million cut in unrestricted aid as the state continues to recover from the recession and faces the end of key federal stimulus funds, none of which are used in the budget, Patrick said.

The release of the governor’s budget is the first step on a long fiscal journey. The House and Senate will craft their own versions, then merge them into a single budget to send back to Patrick for his signature and vetoes.

The 2012 fiscal year begins July 1.

Patrick said his budget proposal grapples with the state’s sober fiscal reality, even as it withdraws $200 million from the rainy day fund, leaving just $569 million in cash reserves.

He said there are no tax hikes in his budget.

“In all of these ways this budget deals with the current challenges we face without passing the buck to future generations,” Patrick said.

Patrick is again pushing an expanded version of the state’s bottle bill and is proposing a new fee — $2.50 to $2.75 on auto insurance policies that he said would help fund a permanent State Police cadet class.

Other reductions in Patrick’s budget include a $23 million cut to emergency homeless shelters, a $16 million cut to the Department of Mental Health hospital and a $45 million reduction in spending by ending the practice of hiring private attorneys to represent the state’s most indigent criminal defendants.

Patrick would instead hire 1,000 salaried lawyers.

Patrick said his budget proposal also would continue to provide tax credits to the film industry, a benefit that backers say has helped create jobs and showcase the Bay State on the silver screen. Patrick last year tried to cap the tax credit at $50 million.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the film tax credits are key to the state’s economic recovery.

“As we strive to put folks across Massachusetts back to work, the film tax credit continues to stimulate local business and job growth throughout Massachusetts,” DeLeo said in a statement.

Critics of Patrick’s budget include the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. They said it will end up forfeiting $6 million in federal matching funds for programs that support the prevention and early detection of disease.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, also criticized Patrick for proposing to end funding for a job training program for the state’s poorest teen parents.

The budget would force the closing of two state prisons.

Administration officials would not say which two prisons might be shuttered, but said the prison closings would not result in the release of any inmates, who could be relocated to other prisons.

Last year, Patrick fought to avoid prison closings by pushing through a $400 million mid-year spending bill. He’s backing a separate bill that he said would alleviate prison overcrowding by ending mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses that do not involve guns or children.

Patrick also is calling for the elimination of a series of other state programs, including an employment services program at the Department of Transitional Assistance, a shellfish purification plant in Newburyport and one of four enrollment centers for MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program.

He also would close a community access program for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and end funding for a program to retrain former dog track workers.

A year ago, Patrick released a budget proposal that he said had a bottom line of $28.2 billion.

Patrick’s top budget official, Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez, said that when off-budget spending is added in, as well as supplemental spending during the year, the actual spending for the current fiscal year tops $31.1 billion.

The $30.5 billion budget proposed by Patrick for the new fiscal year represents a $570 million spending reduction from that higher number, Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the budget plan tries to slow the growth of health care costs.

He said funding for Commonwealth Care, a subsidized plan to provide insurance to those earning up to three times the federal poverty level, would not be increased while MassHealth would rise by $100 million.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said the best test of the governor’s plan is “whether the proposal truly achieves savings or merely shifts costs among the state’s agencies and programs.”

Rep. Brad Jones, the Republican leader in the House, sounded a more skeptical note.

“Gov. Patrick often paints a rosier picture than perhaps what reality suggests,” said Jones, R-North Reading, in a statement. “It will be days, maybe weeks before we know whether or not his numbers add up.”

Associated Press