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House unveils budget plan

Puts high priority on local aid, K-12 education funding

BOSTON ,MA 04/ 11/ 2012 : Chairman of Ways and Means Brian Dempsey confers with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo in his ofice at the Stae House about House budget proposal. ( David L Ryan / Globe Staff Photo ) SECTION: METRO TOPIC 12budget

David Ryan/Globe Staff

The budget unveiled by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (right) and his budget chairman, Brian S. Dempsey, puts its highest priority on preserving local government aid and funding for K-12 education.

Massachusetts House leaders proposed an annual state spending plan Wednesday that would scale back or eliminate several of Governor Deval Patrick’s signature policy proposals, including an overhaul of the community college system, a program to close the school achievement gap, and new and increased taxes for candy, soft drinks, and cigarettes.

The $32.3 billion budget unveiled by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and his budget chairman, Brian S. Dempsey, puts its highest priority on preserving local government aid and K-12 education funding, a clear effort in an election year to help individual House members on the campaign trail.

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To avoid raising taxes, which would have generated $260 million, the House plan would reduce spending on a broad range of programs, forcing many state agencies to live with less than they have said they need to maintain services.

“Much of the rest of state government is going to take hits in order to fund local aid,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed watchdog group.

Among the areas targeted for cuts: gang prevention and youth summer jobs programs and the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

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At the same time, the proposal includes more money to move homeless families now living in hotels to apartments and for programs serving the developmentally disabled.

“I am encouraged by some of the investments in education and the meaningful steps on the governor’s proposed reforms for community colleges and homelessness services,’’ said Jay Gonzalez, Patrick’s budget chief. “However, I don’t think this proposal does enough to address youth violence or close the achievement gap.’’

DeLeo’s spending plan is $1.56 billion higher than the current year’s enacted budget and $1.1 billion over what is actually projected to be spent.

Much of the increase in spending would go to paying rising state health care costs and wage increases for state workers.

The budget also assumes $175 million in largely unspecified cuts to state agencies, but leaves it to the agencies themselves to find what House leaders called creative ways to fill those gaps.

The spending plan depends on a few optimistic assumptions, including that state tax collections will rebound after coming in lower than expected in five of nine months in the current budget year.

It also calls for withdrawing $400 million from the state’s rainy day fund and spending another $110 million that would otherwise be saved for future use.

“Right now, we think we’ll be OK’’ with tax collections by year’s end, Dempsey said.

“But we need to be very careful’’ in monitoring them, he added.

The House proposal includes $18.5 million more for local education than Patrick proposed in his January spending plan. Dempsey said that translates to $40 more spent on every public school student in the state. The plan also includes an additional $11.3 million to reimburse communities that provide special busing services for homeless students.

“All across the board, from education to community programs, this is a strong and effective budget,’’ said Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

The House is expected to debate the spending plan later this month.

The Senate will then release its own proposal in June, paving the way for a compromise plan that lawmakers are supposed to present to Patrick for his review in time for the new budget year, which begins July 1.

In between, advocates for various safety net programs and government services that depend on state money will weigh in on its potential to help or harm residents.

Lewis Finfer, an organizer for the Youth Jobs Coalition, decried the House budget Wednesday for providing millions less for gang prevention efforts and eliminating 1,200 jobs for young people.

“A slew of law enforcement and prevention programs operating in cities across the state would have 80 percent less money than they had last year to deal with gang violence,’’ Finfer said.

The House proposal would also stiffen penalties for those who commit welfare fraud and specifically prohibit welfare recipients from using electronic benefit cards for guns, cosmetics, pornography, and other nonessentials.

Overall, DeLeo reversed some of Patrick’s most unpopular proposed cuts, including elimination of a program that provides 240,000 free and subsidized lunches for senior citizens.

House leaders declined to close the Bay State Correctional Facility in Norfolk, as Patrick had proposed.

Dempsey said that the state’s prisons are overpopulated and that the state should save money instead by requesting new contract bids for food services and other outsourced products.

In addition, the House rejected Patrick’s proposal to hire more defense lawyers to represent indigent criminal defendants, which Patrick said would save money by relying on fewer private lawyers.

In his own budget, the governor had included a plan to overhaul the state’s community colleges, a plan that had been a centerpiece of his annual State of the Commonwealth address.

He proposed to centralize the system’s budget and to give most authority over colleges to the state Board of Education, an effort to create a less disjointed system and better meet employer training needs.

But college presidents and local boards, wary of ceding control, mounted fierce opposition. DeLeo said he heard from many lawmakers who agreed with the presidents, before coming up with what he and Dempsey called a hybrid plan.

“The local reps made it loud and clear to me that they have good relationships with their college presidents, that they like the things they’re doing,’’ the speaker said.

DeLeo’s plan gives the governor authority to appoint chairs of each community college board, and it gives the Board of Higher Education an added role in helping to select community college presidents.

It also adds money for the system and allows the state to change the way funding is allotted on an annual basis to each of the 15 community colleges.

The Patrick administration and the business-based advocacy groups said the proposal delivered most of what they wanted on community colleges.

“We got substantially what we were looking for,’’ said Paul Reville, Patrick’s secretary for education.

Community college presidents also declared victory.

“We’re really grateful to the House for listening to us,’’ said Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College. “What’s come out is a really good piece of legislation that we can work with.’’

Mary Carmichael of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.
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