By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON – Despite a $250 million budget gap four months into the fiscal year, top Statehouse Democrats yesterday said the situation is not yet dire enough to warrant consideration of slashing local aid or public school funding.
Gov. Deval Patrick is expected to announce mid-year budget cuts possibly before the end of the week due to sluggish economic growth over the first quarter of the fiscal year that has left the state with $256 million less in tax collections than anticipated to pay for spending in this year’s $32.5 billion budget.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey said he too does not believe local aid cuts should be considered at this point. “I think we want to hold off. The hope is we don’t need to go there,” Dempsey said.
The Haverhill Democrat said Patrick could look to spending items that could be delayed for now, including public safety grants and a $25 million salary reserve for human service workers that Patrick has already frozen, causing workers to protest outside his office daily.
“There’s never a great place to cut. I would prefer to see perhaps it spread out in way we’ve done in the past and look at those areas of spending that perhaps we could hold off on. The least disruptive is obviously preferable,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey said that despite being “a very popular line item” the salary reserve “may be one we’ll have to hold off on.” Dempsey also noted that last year the Legislature boosted the accounts of many agencies and programs that had been slashed during the recession, and those budgets could be looked at again for savings. Those departments include the Department of Developmental Services, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Public Health, the Judiciary, and environmental and housing accounts, Dempsey said.
Sen. Stephen Brewer, of Barre, the Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman, told the News Service that cutting the local aid is the “absolute last resort.”
Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez said the administration planned to make an announcement “very soon” about cuts, but did not directly address the question of local aid.
Dempsey would not say how much spending he thinks Patrick should trim from the budget, but suggested taking “strong action” will make it easier months from now for agencies to cope with budget cuts should revenues not rebound.
“The concern I have is how we’re trending. The $250 million could become a much bigger number so I think we need to understand the trends have not been favorable. The uncertainty around the fiscal cliff is obviously problematic and we could lose another $350 million this year and $1 billion heading into next year without a deal,” Dempsey said.