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State House Roundup: Cliff Effect

Call it Dempsey’s Razor: With more state funds to disburse than ever – north of $30 billion – Beacon Hill paucity never felt, and sounded, so severe.

Quickly supplanting in public consciousness the 225-page memoir that Gov. Deval Patrick hurled into the ether on Monday, the 225-page budget issued by House fiscal czar Brian Dempsey scalpeled some special interests and outright gored a few others used to faring better beneath the dome.

“We are all acutely aware of the toll that the latest recession has taken on our economy as reflected by its impact on our districts,” Dempsey wrote in a letter to lawmakers that accompanied the $30.45 billion spending plan. “Although Massachusetts has fared better than other states during the recession, this year’s budget gap forced us to make difficult choices to ensure that we meet our constitutional requirement to balance the budget.”

In no particular order, legal immigrants, environmentalists and organized labor took a Haverhill hook to the chin this week, pitched over the proverbial budget cliff and left grasping for the amendment process – increasingly controlled within the speaker’s office – as well as looking to the Senate for support.

Which is why it was with little-noticed irony that Speaker Robert DeLeo stood with his partners in government to celebrate – with sheet cake! – the anniversary of a law designed to guarantee access to health care for nearly every resident of Massachusetts, only to propose two days later, as a budget-balancing measure, casting 19,000 legal immigrants off the rolls.

Those immigrants, of course – green card-holding residents who have been in the country for fewer than five years – are ineligible for federal reimbursement, making them twice as costly to state government than the average person, and making their insurance program a popular target during an economic squeeze. But the House’s decision to cut the $50 million Gov. Deval Patrick had set aside for their care sets them up, once again, as a bargaining chip, and in the meantime, those 19,000 people don’t know if they’ll have health care coverage in as little as nine weeks.

Although the immigrants targeted by the proposal are ineligible to vote, one advocate predicted that the state’s burgeoning immigrant community would hit non-supporters where it hurts: in the voting booth.

“It's certainly true that there are tens of thousands of people every year who become citizens and who are going through that experience and who will remember legislators who act that way, who cut programs for people who are working, paying all their taxes, are here as legally as any U.S.-born citizen, and yet they're denied the same rights to insurance,” said Frank Soults, spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

Labor groups also threatened political problems for lawmakers and appeared stunned to learn that the House budget would include, for now, a proposal that strips municipal workers of their ability to bargain key features of their health care benefits.

The proposal, shy of the more sweeping elimination of collective bargaining power in Wisconsin, drew immediate outrage from prominent Bay State labor leaders who, just two months earlier, took to the streets in defense of Badger State unions targeted by Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal.

Backers, including Dempsey, DeLeo, mayors and prominent business groups, defended the plan as an education and public safety issue, noting that increases in the cost of health insurance for cities and towns have been preventing new investments.

And the enviros, though largely out of sight, have privately griped about inaction on their legislation for much of DeLeo’s speakership, the slow bleed of funding for environmental programs, and the speaker’s labeling of their favorite revenue generator – an expansion of the state’s bottle recycling program – as “another form of taxation,” and thereby out of bounds in his quest to issue a tax-free budget. The budget, which slashes the Department of Environmental Protection’s budget by 17 percent, also eliminates a $6.5 million appropriation aimed at developing a plan to reduce the state’s trash volume and boost recycling.

“To put it in perspective, historically, DEP had about 1,200 full-time employees, going back to about the 2002 level. We’re down to 840 from last year,” Kenneth Kimmell, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, told the News Service on Friday. “The House Ways and Means budget if adopted, we’d probably lose about another 110, 112 people, staffing levels that we haven’t been at since the early 1980s.”

“The two things that are most troubling about that number is, this would affect our ability to issue permitting at the speed of business and … we really feel a need to launch a technical assistance program to municipalities to help them comply with new stormwater mandates that will be coming from the federal government later this year,” he said. “This would be such a deep cut that I think no program would be unaffected by it, and some would probably be dramatically affected by it.”

Dempsey rightfully noted that the budget proposal protects homelessness programs, and nearly all education programs received a level or ticked-up state commitment – although local education aid may actually translate into a cut when the loss of federal funds is factored in.

Rank-and-file lawmakers, meanwhile, found themselves at varying degrees of cluelessness about what, exactly, was in the House Ways and Means Committee budget, with even some committee members flipping through its pages for the first time Wednesday, conveying less awareness than the Boston Herald’s editorial board about some of the big details – but signing off on them anyway.

What made Wednesday’s budget exercise somewhat theoretical was the continuing uncertainty over the impact of $39 billion in federal budget cuts on Massachusetts under a budget deal worked out between Congressional leaders and President Barack Obama. Aides to Gov. Deval Patrick, who focused this week on promoting his new book, offered almost no reaction to the cuts that consumed Washington.

And if the short-term cuts weren’t sufficiently ominous to Bay State budget writers, longer-term cuts to entitlement programs proposed by Republican budget leader Paul Ryan were enough to get Finland-bound Senate President Therese Murray all fired up.

“I just think it's outrageous and I don't understand why people aren't standing up and saying what are you doing?” Murray told the News Service this week. “You're going to get rid of Medicare and you're going to give me a voucher instead? Where is the outrage over this? I’m outraged. I’m totally outraged about this. The middle class is already disappearing. Now you’re going to take it further.”

Apoplexy aside, the House budget release signaled that finally, after 7.5 months of slow-going, the gears of policymaking in the capitol have begun grinding again, just in time for the mother of all gambling hearings, scheduled this week for May 4, when House members will be licking their budget-week wounds, and co-equal branches of government will engage each other again with unpredictable results.

STORY OF THE WEEK: More money. More problems.

This program aired on April 15, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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