Patrick pares budget; more to come

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The budget cutbacks, announced yesterday morning in a news conference, were necessary after the state reported that it collected $223 million less than expected in tax revenue over the first quarter of the fiscal year. Patrick said he ordered his staff to cut 7 percent — about $600,000 — from his own office's budget and encouraged the Legislature, the judiciary and the other constitutional officers to do the same.

House and Senate leaders responded by announcing that they would trim their legislative budgets by 10 percent, returning $9.1 million to the general fund to be spent on other priorities. The spending reductions will mean a hiring freeze as well as cuts to state services and the potential for some layoffs.

"As disruptive as these actions may be, the circumstances demand action. If we take as much pain as possible now, it will be easier over the course of the year," Patrick said.

Republicans responded to the news with a "told-you-so" approach, reminding taxpayers that they voted against the original $28.2 billion budget as they called for freeze on all hiring, new programs, and expansion of existing programs.

The governor also proposed a number of reforms that could save the state in the long-run, including a sure-to-be controversial proposal to eliminate the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority that has been thwarted before in the Legislature when proposed by both Gov. Mitt Romney and Gov. William Weld. Both House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray said the elimination of the Turnpike Authority might get more support because it is saddled with troublesome debt.

Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Baddour, D-Methuen, did not speak directly about the proposal, but left the door wide open.

"We must continue to consider all opportunities for reform, no matter how controversial they may appear, so that tax and toll payers are ensured that their money is being used efficiently and effectively," Baddour said.

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Some questioned, however, whether the governor was using the budget crisis to his political advantage to push through the Turnpike consolidation at a time when everything appears to be on the table.

"I think it makes no sense. There are no savings there," said Michael Widmer, president of the business backed watchdog Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "I think he sees this as maybe an opportunity to get that done, but it's going to become a major distraction under the illusion of action."

Widmer said elimination of the Turnpike Authority would save $9 million at the most, while proving to be a complicated political and financial task of restructuring that agency's debt.

Patrick called for consolidating Turnpike operations into other agencies, finding cheaper ways to deliver services, restructuring Big Dig debt and Turnpike debt, and working with the Treasurer to reform the state and MBTA pension systems.

He said the reorganization of the Turnpike could mean an elimination of tolls on that road. He also backed away from the idea of raising the gas tax, and refused to rule out the possibility of bringing a new casino gambling proposal come January.

Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwin has been instructed to revise the state's revenue projections by Oct. 15, a downward adjustment that will trigger the governor's so-called 9c authority to make broad budget cuts with executive branch agencies that Patrick said could total "hundreds of millions of dollars."

In total, Patrick has the authority to make emergency spending reductions on about $12.7 billion, slightly less than half the state budget. Though he said he may still seek expanded 9c powers to make cuts across the board, Murray said he hoped by being proactive in cutting 10 percent on their own, they could eliminate that need.


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