House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, setting up a fight with unions, today proposed a $30.5 billion annual state budget that cuts more deeply than Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal and goes further than the governor to strip local public employees of their right to bargain over health care.
House leaders said their plan would cut $94 million more than Patrick’s proposal unveiled in January, and would represent the biggest year-to-year cut in state spending in two decades. The Senate still has not released its proposed budget.
State leaders are grappling with the loss of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funds and a shaky economic recovery.
House leaders said their plan would close, overall, a $1.9 billion budget gap, in part by matching the governor’s proposal to withdraw $200 million from the state’s rainy day fund.
The hit to social services and local services will be considerable. The House plan would cut programs for the elderly, the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill. House leaders would increases spending on schools by $120 million, but that is $20 million less than Patrick’s plan.
The House plan matches the governor’s proposal to slash local aid by $65 million, or 7 percent, a reduction that will hit police officers, firefighters, senior centers, and other local services. Local aid has already been cut by 32 percent, or $416 million, over the last three years, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
But House leaders said they would more than offset this year’s local aid cut by going further than the governor to control soaring municipal health costs. The House plan would give local officials the mayor or the town council unfettered authority to set the co-pays and deductibles for local public employees without having to negotiate with the workers’ unions. Premiums would remain on the bargaining table.
Patrick has sought to preserve some power for the unions to negotiate by giving them a brief period of time to bargain before local officials would be allowed to impose their own terms unilaterally.
Public employee benefits have become a national flashpoint, sparking protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey, among other states. House leaders in overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts have traditionally been reluctant to touch the issue because they have enjoyed strong union support.
Some Massachusetts House members, as well as Senate President Therese Murray and the governor, have all said unions must retain some voice in the negotiating process. But House leaders said today that local health costs have been eating away at public services, including school spending, and local officials need more power to override their unions.
“It’s the most significant reform we can make this year,” said Brian S. Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which controls the budget process.
The House plan rejects Patrick’s sweeping proposal to create a new public defender agency by hiring 1,000 lawyers and 500 support staff. Patrick claimed the proposal would save money over the current system, which relies on contracts with private lawyers. But House leaders said they doubted the savings and they would instead adopt more modest changes.
The House plan would hire 200 state public defenders and establish a new system to screen out defendants who can afford to pay for their own lawyers. House leaders said their plan would $12.3 million, while Patrick said his proposal would save at least $45 million.
House leaders also rejected the governor’s plan to close two state prisons. Dempsey argued that the governor, who has yet to identify which prisons would close, hadn’t done enough to discuss the issue with the leaders of cities and towns that host prisons. Instead, Dempsey said, the House would adopt a less ambitious plan to encourage prisons to renegotiate their contracts for food and medical services.
House leaders would also make deep cuts in services for the mentally ill. While the governor wants to eliminate 160 of the state’s 626 mental health beds, DeLeo’s plan would instead cut 140 to 145 beds.
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.