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Gov. Patrick To Sign $32.5B Budget On Sunday

Gov. Deval Patrick and top aides on Friday were close to finishing their review of a $32.5 billion state budget to fund government operations for the fiscal year that started July 1.

Patrick scheduled a news conference for Sunday in his office to sign the spending plan and announce any line-item vetoes. The governor can also send provisions back to the Legislature with suggested amendments.

House and Senate negotiators agreed last week on a final version of the budget after resolving differences between the spending plans approved earlier by both branches. The budget calls for no new taxes but seeks a one-time $350 million withdrawal from the state's reserve account, commonly known as the rainy-day fund.

The state has been operating on an interim budget since last Sunday.

A group called the Massachusetts Prescription Reform Coalition has urged Patrick to veto a budget provision that would loosen a ban on certain gifts to doctors, saying the proposed change could compromise the independence of physicians and increase health care costs by enticing doctors to prescribe more expensive name-brand drugs or make unnecessary equipment purchases.

The 2008 law bars pharmaceutical companies and medical device firms from buying meals for doctors except in hospital or other health care settings and only in conjunction with training sessions.

Under compromise language adopted by lawmakers, doctors could be treated to "modest" meals and refreshments in restaurants or other venues if the meetings are "informational" in nature. It would be up to state public health officials to establish guidelines for what would be considered modest.

Critics say the changes could leave doctors more vulnerable to marketing tactics.

"To move in a direction where we allow marketing for purposes that may or may not be informational, with biased information potentially, seems like the wrong direction," said Jessica Costantino, advocacy director for AARP Massachusetts, a group that is part of the coalition.

The pharmaceutical and medical device industries have been pushing to relax the gift ban, arguing that they should be allowed the freedom to market products in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association has also lobbied for change, contending its members are hurt by the ban on outside meals.

Advocates for immigrants have urged Patrick to veto several budget items including one that would require a driver's license or other proof of legal residency when registering a motor vehicle.

Another provision would increase fines for distributing documents with false IDs.

"We think this is just a big push to try to score political points without due consideration for the value of making these changes," said Franklin Soults, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. The group believes the proposals should be considered separately by lawmakers through the normal hearing process rather than tied to the budget.

Activists have praised lawmakers, however, for dropping other immigration-related proposals from earlier versions of the budget, including one that would have required those living in public housing to show proof of legal residency.

Patrick was weighing a budget amendment targeting public assistance fraud that would put new restrictions on Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, prohibiting welfare recipients from using the cards to purchase tobacco, pornography and tattoos, among other items.

Another provision in the budget would maintain 45 beds at the aging Taunton State Hospital. The administration had proposed closing the psychiatric hospital altogether.

This program aired on July 7, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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