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Mass. Gov. Patrick weighing final budget plan

Associated Press | 6/29/2010, 7:18 p.m.

For Gov. Deval Patrick, there’s good news and bad news in the stripped down budget shipped to his desk by Massachusetts lawmakers.

While the budget is rife with cuts, including a 4 percent reduction in state aid to cities and towns, it largely lets him off the hook on a Senate-backed clampdown on illegal immigrants that was part of the budget legislation but was watered down before getting final approval.

“I am working with the Legislature now to produce a balanced budget that faces these challenges squarely while protecting education funding, local aid, health care and job creation,” the governor said last week.

Patrick and the Legislature are strongly divided on the issue of local aid.

Patrick’s budget plan, released in January, avoided cuts in state aid partly by drawing more money from the state’s rapidly dwindling “rainy day” savings account.

The House and Senate opted to leave the rainy day fund intact fearing next year’s budget could be even tighter and, instead, approved a $160 million reduction.

While Patrick may still be opposed to cutting local aid, it may be harder to avoid because of the failure of Congress so far to approve additional Medicaid money, which both the governor and Legislature had factored into their budget proposals.

House and Senate budget negotiators essentially filed two budgets: a $27.9 billion plan that included additional Medicaid money and a $27.6 billion plan that does not.

To help close a $687 million Medicaid gap, budget negotiators diverted nearly $200 million from the state’s rainy day fund and made additional, targeted cuts. If Congress approves the extra funds, the cuts would be reversed.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said local officials have braced for cuts.

“It could have been worse,” he said. “There could have been deeper cuts.”

The Legislature’s budget also spares Patrick a politically dicey decision on a Senate-backed budget amendment aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants getting public benefits.

The budget eliminated parts of the amendment that created a 24-hour hot line to report suspected illegal immigrant workers and that required the state attorney general to sign an agreement to enforce federal immigration law.

If the full amendment had been in the budget, Patrick would have faced the decision whether to sign it and alienate some of his core supporters, or veto it and risk putting off moderate voters just as he’s facing a tough re-election campaign.

“Governor Patrick has made it clear he supports granting in-state tuition benefits and issuing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, and we just saved him the trouble of having to veto these reforms,” said Senate Republican leader Richard Tisei, who is running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker.

Immigrant advocates said that while they were grateful the budget doesn’t include the harsher measures, they were concerned about a cut in a program that provides health coverage to more than 30,000 legal immigrants.

“It leaves us in exactly the same position we were a year ago, replaying a nightmare for thousands of moderate-income legal residents who will be left without coverage,” said Eva Millona, director of the Massachusetts Immigrants and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

House and Senate leaders also spared Patrick the prospect of signing more tax hikes.

The final budget rejects any new taxes, including $75 million in Registry of Motor Vehicle fees and other tax and fee hikes Patrick had proposed.

“I am proud that the Legislature has produced an efficient budget on time without any new taxes,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said.

Baker and independent state Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who also is running for governor, have faulted Patrick for approving tax hikes, including raising the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent and subjecting alcohol sold in stores to the sales tax.

Patrick has said that Baker and Cahill have yet to specify where they would make cuts to compensate for the loss of revenue if those tax hikes were eliminated.

Associated Press