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Mass. Budget Cuts Hit Education, Environment Hard

The economic downturn has hit home. That's the word from Gov. Deval Patrick as he announced steps the state will take to close its a $1.4 billion budget gap.

The governor said Wednesday that he wants to dip further into Massachusetts' rainy day fund and also recoup some money through pension changes.

But most of the savings, about $900 million, will come from cuts, cost controls, and at least 1,000 fewer state jobs. WBUR's Martha Bebinger has the details.

MARTHA BEBINGER: Gov. Patrick says his priority, as he makes cuts, is to preserve essential state services. That includes shelters for the homeless, health coverage, food assistance, and programs for veterans and older residents.

GOV. DEVAL PATRICK: I don't believe we should ask the most vulnerable to shoulder the load in times like these.

BEBINGER: Patrick also wants to protect local aid and state funding for public schools. But there are hundreds of cuts that range from 14,000 for a Victim Witness Assistance program to three million dollars for boys and girls clubs across the state. One workforce training program would lose nine million dollars and the state's travel and tourism budget is cut more than half.

Funding for higher education will drop, on average, by 5 percent. That's less than the cut in most departments, but will still mean a $12 million loss this year at UMass- Amherst alone. Gov. Patrick is trimming roughly 1,000 state jobs, which he says everyone will notice.

GOV. PATRICK: Expect longer waits at the RMV, expect less community policing patrols, expect slower permitting approvals, expect less frequent maintenance of our parks and open spaces.

BEBINGER: The governor hopes to save close to $300 million in the MassHealth, or Medicaid budget by making sure only those who qualify are enrolled and by reducing payments to doctors, hospitals and health care centers.

These changes will cost the state about $110 million because the federal government shares the expense of covering low-income residents. Massachusetts Hospital Association President Lynn Nicholas says many hospitals can't afford the payment cut.

LYNN NICHOLAS: The impact on hospitals will be greater than it is in other sectors of the economy, people will still get the help they need, they may not be able to pay for it, hospitals have their own employees, its going to be very tough.

BEBINGER: Gov. Patrick needs the legislatures' approval for about $350 million he wants to use to close the budget gap. He's filed a bill that Senate President Therese Murray has not reviewed, but says the Senate could take up soon. Murray praises the governor for making a lot of tough choices, although some made her gasp.

THERESE MURRAY: Substance abuse, some elderly services, home care programs for elders, education, SPED; significant cuts for SPED, which I guess I didn't expect, but I know that cuts have to be made everywhere.

BEBINGER: Murray says cities and towns may be compelled to pick up the cost of SPED, special education programs or other school related grants the state is trimming.

Mayors and town managers are relieved that local aid and money for public schools will not be cut, for now. But Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer warns that this downturn, like others, will likely last several years.

MICHAEL WIDMER: When there is this kind of global economic calamity and what is certainly going to be an extended fiscal crisis, clearly cities and towns are not going to be immune, so I think the question for cities and towns in how deep the cuts and when will they be coming.

BEBINGER: Cities and towns will have one answer in a few weeks when voters decide if they want to abolish the state income tax, which is about 40 percent of the state's budget.

Program directors who are losing money now say it is unconscionable that voters could force state leaders to make much more dramatic cuts. But supporters of that ballot question say this round of belt tightening proves the state budget is bloated and can be trimmed.

For WBUR, I'm Martha Bebinger.

This program aired on October 16, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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