By Matt Viser, Globe Staff
Cities and towns would have less money to fight crime and plow streets. The working poor would lose assistance needed to stay in their homes. And fewer seniors would be able to afford home care.
The $27.4 billion budget proposed yesterday by Massachusetts House leaders includes steep cuts in nearly every area touched by state government and would impose the greatest reduction in year-to-year spending in recent memory. The announcement, which comes at a time of steadily declining tax revenues, immediately triggered vocal protests and calls for a tax increase to preserve services.
Cities and towns, which are still reeling from emergency cuts Governor Deval Patrick made earlier this year, would see their funds decline even further under the House budget proposal. While education aid would remain at this year’s level, the portion of state aid dedicated to public safety, road maintenance, and other local services would be slashed an additional 25 percent.
Funding for Shannon grants – an antigang and outreach program – and the Quinn Bill – a police benefit fiercely protected by the unions – would both be eliminated. Commonwealth Corps, a program created by Patrick that asks volunteers to dedicate a year of service to communities, would also be scrapped.
The cuts are so severe, and so targeted at programs that have widespread support, that some questioned whether the House was resorting to scare tactics to pave the way for broad-based tax increases. But House leaders said these proposals are a real, sober assessment of cuts that are necessary to keep pace with falling state revenues.
"We’re not playing any games," Representative Charles A. Murphy, chairman of the House Ways and Means Com mittee, said in a briefing with the Globe. "We’re trying to illustrate the fiscal reality."
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo called the budget "a portrait of the economy."
The cuts prompted immediate protests from mayors, particularly in cities that are most reliant on state grant programs that supply funds for community policing and homelessness prevention programs.
"The cities of Massachusetts have taken a shot right between the eyes," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, which would see a $53 million cut in local aid under the plan. "All the things that are important to making a city work, they’re just gone."
"I just don’t understand how a budget can be put together like this and taken seriously," he added. "This is a budget that was ill-conceived. This budget has no heart – and it has no brains."
The House proposal includes no new taxes and avoids using any state reserves to balance the budget, although some lawmakers have started to make the case that tax increases need to be seriously considered, including a sales tax increase.
DeLeo and Murphy have avoided any talk of tax hikes, but a group of lawmakers plans to meet today to discuss possible revenue options. All Democrats were invited to the meeting.
"This is going to devastate families and communities across the state," said Representative Carl Sciortino, a Somerville Democrat and vice chairman of the House Committee on Revenue. "If we want to protect a decent quality of life, we have to look at a budget that looks at both cuts and expenditures."
House lawmakers have until Friday to file amendments, which could include broad-based tax proposals. The House will begin debating April 27 and then send the budget on to the Senate, which will craft its own version. The two chambers will then be charged with ironing out their differences and sending a final proposal to Patrick before the July 1 start of the fiscal year.
The $27.4 billion House proposal is $532 million less than the budget proposal the governor submitted three months ago and about $730 million less than the budget that lawmakers initially agreed to for this year.
The cut to local aid would be the largest in state history, according to Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
"It’s been eight years of hell. We’re beyond hell now," said Mayor John Barrett of North Adams, where local aid would be cut by $1.2 million. "It’s absurd and it’s crazy. This is Draconian. People aren’t angry about what’s going on at the local level, they’re angry about what’s going on at the state level."
Local officials have been lobbying for the ability to raise meals and hotel taxes in their communities, but so far have been rebuffed by the Legislature.
Cutting the Quinn bill is also drawing fire from police unions that were caught completely off guard by the elimination of the program. "There’s a part of me that feels betrayed and insulted," said Thomas Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. "Without any dialogue? No discussion?"
The Quinn bill, which was passed in 1970, supplies salary boosts to police officers who earn a college degree. Depending on local contracts, the elimination of the state program would either mean that police officers will take pay cuts or local officials will have to make up the difference.
Patrick has proposed a range of new revenue possibilities, including sales taxes on alcohol and candy and raising the statewide tax on meals and hotel rooms, but the House has not acted. The House budget does, however, include Patrick’s proposal to raise a host of fees at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com