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Patrick challengers offer ideas to close budget gap

But Cahill demurs on detailing a plan

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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Charles D. Baker Jr. would lay off 5,000 state workers, reduce the number of health and human services agencies, and ask chains like CVS, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens to take over some of the transactions handled by the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Christy Mihos would cut the governor’s staff by 50 percent, lay off 300 toll takers, and legalize sports betting at stores that sell lottery tickets.

And state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, although he promises to cut spending on health care, education, and local aid, says he cannot offer more details about his plans until he is elected governor. “I don’t have enough insight into the budget, especially particular areas where money is being wasted, until I get in there,’’ he said.

After the candidates for governor responded to Governor Deval Patrick’s budget proposal last month with withering criticism, the Globe asked them each to come up with five ways they would close the more than $2 billion budget gap the state is facing next year as it continues to grapple with the economic crisis.

Their answers and, in Cahill’s case, reluctance to answer were telling, as the candidates try to capitalize on one of the most significant downsides of Patrick’s incumbency: Faced with a lingering budget deficit, he will potentially be forced to lay people off and decrease the services residents receive at the same time he is asking for their vote.

“In good economic times, it might be an asset to be the incumbent governor and show spending increases for good causes,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “This kind of fiscal meltdown might be a serious disadvantage to the incumbent.’’

Indeed, the candidates trying to oust Patrick were quick to savage his spending plan last month. Patrick’s budget relied on a mix of one-time federal aid; the reduction of hundreds of state jobs; tax increases on candy, soda, and tobacco; the trimming of tax incentives for the film industry; and a series of cuts to health, environmental, and other programs. His budget would, however, protect funding for school districts and cities and towns, his top priority.

“Same gimmicks, more spending, more taxes, and no reform,’’ Baker wrote on his Twitter account. “That’s his ‘sound’ plan? Really?’’

Cahill faulted Patrick for increasing spending by 3 percent in the midst of an economic crunch. “Not a good starting point for the governor,’’ he told the Boston Herald.

And Mihos scolded Patrick for proposing tax increases, saying they would hurt small businesses. “Nothing is right when Main Street is wrong,’’ he said.

Patrick said he expects such criticism to continue. Repeating a line he has been using on the stump, he said: “They believe the budget is a math problem that is an end to itself. I view the budget as a means to an end. It’s about how we help people.’’

In response to the Globe’s challenge, Baker, a Republican who was the budget chief in the Weld and Cellucci administrations, emphasized reducing and restructuring state government, although he was sometimes reluctant to offer specifics about what would be cut.

Repeating a pledge he has made recently in campaign appearances and on a radio show, he said he would slash by 10 percent the 50,000 workers in the executive branch, saving $400 million. But he would not name specific agencies he would target for reductions. Instead, he vowed to cut across the branch, beginning with jobs in the “administrative and management ranks.’’

Stephen P. Crosby, who served as budget chief for Jane Swift, the Republican who was acting governor, praised Baker for considering layoffs, saying, “The only way government institutions are made lean are at times of financial crisis.’’

But cutting 5,000 workers is “a really seriously Draconian step’’ that would be difficult because union rules protect the more senior employees with the highest salaries, Crosby said.

Baker said he would also consolidate the 17 health and human services agencies because five or six do most of the work now and there “ought to be less.’’ He said he could “produce substantial savings without impacting services,’’ by combining the purchasing, legal, and information technology divisions, for example. But he declined to say what agencies he believes are redundant, saying only that “many case managers and many people are working at cross-purposes.’’

He also proposed capping state pensions at $90,000 a year to save $50 million. Consolidating the 80 agencies and boards that issue licenses would save another $50 million, he said. His plan to shift some Registry transactions to commercial businesses would require those stores to pay the state for the right to handle the business.

“Rather than thinking of this as a cutting exercise, I think about this as a restructure, reform, and simplify exercise,’’ Baker said.

He acknowledged that his five ideas would not close a $2 billion budget gap. But he said the proposals were just a sample of those he has been talking about; he joked that he could keep discussing reform plans for hours.

Mihos, a Republican businessman from Cape Cod, proposed pulling money the former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority invested in securities and using it to pay off $150 million in debt on the western portion of the turnpike. That would allow him, he said, to remove the tolls there and lay off 300 toll takers.

He also vowed to freeze state wages and salaries for one year, which he said would save $140 million. Legalizing sports betting, he said, could raise $1 billion for state government. And he vowed to close the Registry and let city and town halls handle those transactions.

“I just want to pare down government and cut the size of government,’’ Mihos said.

Cahill, an independent who left the Democratic Party in July, said he would not raise taxes and would consider cutting all “sacred cows,’’ including health care, education, and local aid. But even though he has managed state finances since 2003, he declined to offer more specific cuts, saying, “It’s hard to do when you’re not in the [governor’s] office.’’

He blamed Patrick, saying the governor has not given him enough information to differentiate “real spending’’ from agencies merely “defending their turf.’’

“I know it sounds like I’m avoiding, but I don’t want to make the mistake this guy did, by promising things that aren’t doable or real,’’ Cahill said of Patrick. “I don’t want to fall into that trap, especially without all the information.’’

Jill Stein, the Green-Rainbow Party candidate, said she would eliminate tax incentives for corporations, including those for Raytheon and Fidelity, which she called “payoffs for layoffs.’’ She said she would freeze corporate tax rates, which are set to fall under state law. And she vowed to eliminate tax incentives for the film and biotech industries, which she argued have not been cost-effective.

“There’s pain all around,’’ said Stein, a Lexington doctor. “I think it needs to be shared at the top, from interests that have really benefited from the economy of the past couple of decades.’’

Grace Ross, a Democrat who was the Green-Rainbow Party’s candidate for governor in 2006, said she would increase food stamp use, saying that because the program is paid for by the federal government and the stamps are used in local stores, it would boost the local economy. She proposed increasing drug and alcohol treatment for criminal offenders, asserting that would save money by reducing the number of people in prison. And she said reducing the number of foreclosures would also generate billions for the state by reviving the local economy.

“The chain reaction is huge,’’ she said.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.