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Senate spending plan hits services

Targets $1.9b gap without a tax hike; but it also averts some feared cuts

By Michael Levenson and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 19, 2011

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Thousands of children on welfare would see their yearly clothing allowance plummet from $150 to $40. Community orchestras and local dance troupes would be slashed. And 2,400 poor teenagers would lose their state-funded summer jobs.

The state Senate’s $30.5 billion annual spending plan, released yesterday, spreads cuts across a range of services in an attempt to plug a $1.9 billion budget gap without raising taxes. Local aid, which has been trimmed three years in a row, would be reduced by another $65 million, matching the cut proposed in January by Governor Deval Patrick and approved by the House last month.

The Senate plan also advances a contentious proposal to curb the collective bargaining rights of teachers, firefighters, and other municipal workers to help local officials control the rising cost of health insurance for cities and towns. But some of the most feared cuts would be averted, and spending overall would increase by $38 million from the current budget year.

Funding for the correction system would be maintained, scuttling Patrick’s proposal to close two state prisons. Money for the mental health system would increase, reversing the governor’s plan to eliminate 160 of the state’s 626 mental health beds. Early intervention services for children with developmental disabilities, which were also cut in the governor’s budget, would be preserved in the Senate proposal.

Lawmakers are struggling with the loss of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money that helped protect state services in the down economy. Tax collections have been increasing of late, but lawmakers say they remain cautious about the state’s financial condition.

In one of the most significant proposals, the Senate would spend $750 million less than is needed to fully fund the state’s Medicaid program, forcing the poor and elderly to pay more for prescription drugs and other medical services. Like the governor and the House, the Senate would also cut by about 20 percent the Women, Infants, and Children program, which provides 130,000 pregnant women and mothers of young children with food, health care referrals, and nutrition education.

Stephen M. Brewer, a Barre Democrat who is the Senate’s budget chief, called the spending plan “the largest fiscal challenge our state has yet faced.’’

“Make no mistake,’’ he said. “This is a painful budget.’’

But he and other members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee said they did their best to preserve the social safety net, including adult day care services for the elderly that had been cut in Patrick’s proposal, as well as programs for veterans, and survivors of domestic violence.

The Senate’s Republican minority, four of the chamber’s 40 seats, offered their support, as well. Michael R. Knapik, the top Republican on the budget committee, called the plan “an extremely thoughtful and extremely diligent approach.’’

One of the few voices of dissent came from the Senate’s liberal wing. Patricia D. Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, lamented that the budget had no tax increases to offset the cuts that hit the most vulnerable. “I hope in the future we will have higher aspirations for the role of state government in solving problems,’’ said Jehlen, who nevertheless voted for the budget when it was released by the committee.

The full Senate will debate the budget next week, beginning Wednesday. Senators will then hash out a compromise with the House. Patrick must sign off on a final product by July 1.

Much of the attention next week will be fixed on the Senate’s effort to limit the collective bargaining rights of municipal workers in hopes of saving $100 million for cities and towns.

The proposal, like a similar plan passed in the House last month, gives local officials 30 days to reach an agreement with their unions on health plan changes. Local governments could either adopt the less costlypackage that state workers get or design their own plan with similar parameters.

In the case of a deadlock, the dispute would go to a three-member review panel with one union representative, one management representative, and a tie-breaking vote appointed by the governor’s budget chief. The House plan allows local officials to make unilateral changes in copayments and deductibles, without having to send them to a committee. Both plans give some savings back to workers, but the Senate plan offers them more.

The push to limit union bargaining power has infuriated labor leaders, who say the state is stripping workers’ rights. Brewer argued that the Senate plan gives unions a “voice, but not a veto.’’

Echoing other local officials, Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston said the Senate plan, like the House version, represents “another step forward in our effort to curb municipal health care costs.’’

Union officials have few options left to stop the Legislature from curbing members’ health benefits. While labor leaders plot their next move, a coalition of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state AFL-CIO, and other unions released a noncommittal statement.

The Senate plan, it said, takes a “thoughtful approach’’ and “seems to include some protections for workers and retirees.’’ But it added that “unions still seek to maintain collective bargaining rights.’’

A key union ally in the Senate, Marc R. Pacheco, said he was so upset about the plan that he declined to join fellow members of the Ways and Means Committee who unveiled the budget.

“I’m just so frustrated about where we’re headed,’’ said Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, who contended that the plan does not give workers a meaningful voice in health care negotiations.