THE STATE HOUSE An avoidable mid-year budget crisis brought on by unduly rosy economic prognostications had lawmakers contemplating Gov. Deval Patrick’s request to cut local aid and the “fluff” that could be trimmed instead.
While choirs filled the State House with the soothing sounds of the holidays this week and retiring, or defeated lawmakers bid their colleagues adieux, the “fiscal cliff” negotiations in Washington, what those mean for Bay State finances, and reality of the slow recovery hardened into a concrete number: $540 million.
That was the size of the immediate budget gap identified by Patrick on Tuesday as his administration revised its fiscal 2013 tax collection estimate downward by $515 million, a move that reflected the slower growth. Patrick blamed the slow receipts – which are based on collections dating back to July – on the uncertainty caused by the lack of a resolution in Washington on tax hikes and spending reductions to address the deficit.
The economy has been growing more slowly than anticipated for quite some time – though still growing – and has failed to keep pace with the recovery economists and legislative leaders anticipated some 12 months ago when they made an educated guess on revenues.
The budget solution proposed by Patrick included $225 million in unilateral cuts made by the governor through his so-called 9C authority, as well as a $200 million draw from the state reserves which budget officials have been working to build up since the recession drained much of the money in the account. As for the cuts Patrick couldn’t make on his own, the governor asked lawmakers to approve a 1 percent cut – $9 million – to unrestricted local aid and asked the Legislature and other non-executive agencies to absorb similar reductions.
The proposal didn’t sit well with cities and towns, quick to point out that Patrick had not just asked for $9 million, but had also slashed funding increases for regional and homeless student transportation and special education.
A day after Patrick rolled out his cuts, budget chief Jay Gonzalez delivered an uncharacteristically proactive and sharp-tongued rebuttal of the criticism being lobbed at the executive office, calling municipal claims of budget-busting cuts “disingenuous” and Republican calls for more tax breaks to stimulate the economy “ridiculous.”
Ordinarily, the Patrick administration has preferred to let people say what they will, particularly Beacon Hill Republicans. Signs of an administration more willing to play in the mud in its last two years, or of a loyal Cabinet member on his way out the door?
Rep. Daniel Winslow (R-Norfolk) came out fast with one of the sharpest criticisms of the governor, suggesting Patrick hid the state’s economic woes until after the election and turned to local aid while leaving “fluff” in government, like press aides tending to a downsized media, untouched.
“To suggest we could have avoided the steps we took yesterday if we had just turned to some easy piece of fluff to cut out of the budget is just not realistic,” Gonzalez said.
While the budget drama – targeted by House Speaker Robert DeLeo for a January resolution – played out in the State House, Tim Cahill sat in a courtroom awaiting his verdict. Cahill passed the time with books and PB&J sandwiches (no fluff), while Bill Weld was stirring it up with Boston Herald editorial board, coming to Cahill’s defense.
The former U.S. attorney and Republican governor not only said he wouldn’t have brought charges against Cahill, but suggested the ongoing grand jury investigations into Probation Department patronage are also a reach.
“There is such a thing as politics, and you do need to pay attention to it. It requires a certain amount of Mazola oil. That’s what troubles me about these criminal cases. It’s like they’re criminalizing the Mazola oil. That’s not good for business,” he was quoted saying.
Weld said what many current and former Beacon Hill solons might be thinking, but would never say out loud. Jobs for support or funding, if in fact that’s what happened, is part of the transactional politics necessary to grease the skids of compromise.
Heck, Lincoln did the exact same thing in order to abolish slavery, at least according to Steven Spielberg. (Okay, Weld didn’t go that far). But Weld’s point speaks to the broader context of what’s at stake with Cahill’s trial outside of the Quincy pol’s future living arrangements.
Coakley may be responsible for Cahill’s current predicament, but it’s U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz leading the charge on the probation front and the Boston Globe had political junkies in a tizzy with a story Friday about a private conversation Patrick may have had with DeLeo and Murray, reportedly advancing her name for governor.
Patrick flatly denied the story and the conversation, but it was enough to enliven an otherwise sleepy building on a Friday afternoon tired from a week of holiday parties and farewells but always ready to devour a bit of 2014 gossip.
“Politics isn’t cyclical here, it’s eternal,” Sen. Stephen Brewer said, even before the Ortiz story broke.
More for the fire, one Democratic operative said Sen. Daniel Wolf (D-Harwich) has met with a consultant to talk about the possibility of mounting a U.S. Senate campaign if Sen. John Kerry leaves for the State Department. Wolf has already deftly skirted questions about his interest in running for governor, and appears to be exploring all his options.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, the source said, met with the same consultant about a possible run for governor, and those interested in Treasurer Steven Grossman’s seat should he try to climb the ladder include Rep. Thomas Conroy, Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer, Sen. Katherine Clark ( who denied interest) and Boston City Councilors Mike Ross and Stephen Murphy.
One person taking himself completely out of the 2014 election cycle this week was GOP Chairman Robert Maginn. “I have not heard the voice of the Lord calling me to seek re-election as Chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party at this time,” Maginn wrote to state committee members. Nothing to do with the GOP’s dismal performance at the polls.
The House said goodbye this week to 16 members, including six who gave farewell speeches from the floor highlighted by Republican Rep. Paul Adams’ defiance and vow to return, and a seemingly inconsolable Rep. David Torrisi. “Notice it was the men who were crying and the women who held it together,” joked one female lawmaker when it was over.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, of Peabody, and Sen. Susan Fargo, of Lincoln, also said their goodbyes, a must see for senators, staff and even the chamber mice who decided to stick around for the festivities.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Patrick says everyone must share in the budget woes, Legislature says not so fast.