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Boston and Beyond

December 30, 2012

Mass. lawmakers face budget, drug lab questions

BOSTON (AP) — It was a only few months ago that lawmakers exited Beacon Hill with much crowing and backslapping over a session that produced several landmark laws, including legalization of casino gambling, an ambitious effort to contain health care costs and a three-strikes measure directed at some of the state’s most violent criminals.

But there will be little time to celebrate past accomplishments when the Legislature reconvenes Wednesday for the start of the next two-year session. The recent months brought a spate of disappointing and even disturbing news, some of which may require the immediate attention of legislators.

A drug testing scandal in a now-closed state lab threatened to unravel thousands of criminal cases; a deadly nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak was linked to a steroid produced by a specialty pharmacy regulated by the state; and revenue projections used to craft the current state budget were revealed as overly optimistic, prompting Gov. Deval Patrick to call for $540 million in spending adjustments.

Add to that a key unresolved issue from the last session, the state’s broken transportation finance system, and there is every expectation for a lively start to the session.

Money matters will undoubtedly be at the top of the agenda.

Patrick wants prompt action on a series of measures to help patch the budget hole, including a $200 million transfer from the state’s reserve, known as the rainy day fund, and $25 million in cuts in the judicial and legislative branches.

One of the smaller cuts proposed by Patrick, $9 million in unrestricted local aid, may be the one that meets the most resistance. Cities and towns say the 1 percent reduction could wreak havoc with municipal budgets and many lawmakers in both parties have been publicly sympathetic to those complaints.

The governor, meanwhile, has repeatedly sought what he calls an “adult conversation” in the next session about paying for transportation. The meaning of the phrase is unmistakable — Patrick believes the Legislature must be willing to consider new revenues to stave off another round of hikes in public transit fares and free up money to fix crumbling roads and bridges.

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