Governor Deval Patrick signed a $32.5 billion budget into law Sunday afternoon, vetoing $32.1 million in spending and rejecting the Legislature’s efforts to keep open Taunton State Hospital.
“The fiscal environment remains challenging,” Patrick said at the budget signing. “We were able to do this by making some tough but necessary decisions and working hard to do more with less.”
Patrick highlighted several aspects of the budget: It spends less one-time revenue than last year’s budget and puts the state on track to have one of the largest rainy-day funds nationwide.
He also said that health care spending growth has slowed, and he committed to stronger oversight and accountability at community colleges, one of the governor’s stated priorities. The budget includes funding for programs aimed directly at the state’s 15 community colleges, including a $5 million grant program to reward good performance and $2.25 million for colleges to work with employers to develop relevant classes and training.
In signing the budget, the governor also made his own spending allocations of more than $70 million, including a sales tax holiday in August, and sent back some of the Legislature’s proposals.
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said that the vetoes — including 10 line items — were relatively minor.
“When one looks at a budget of $32 billion, these are modest changes,” Widmer said. He said that while sales tax holidays are politically popular, studies have shown they have little economic impact.
“It’s not really an economic generator for the Commonwealth, and it costs roughly $20 million a year,” Widmer said.
Patrick vowed never to allow legislation similar to Arizona’s that targets illegal immigrants, but he accepted the Legislature’s efforts to increase penalties for violations such as driving without a license. He said he sent back a provision dealing with requirements for registering a motor vehicle.
He also said he would seek changes to provisions that would ban recipients of welfare from using their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards for certain types of purchases, urging the Legislature to more closely hew to the recommendations of a group that was convened to study abuses and fraud in welfare.
“I’m not going to do anything that makes vulnerable people beg for their benefits,” Patrick said.
Though most of his budget changes were relatively minor, Patrick came under fire for his decision to close Taunton State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital with 169 beds. The Legislature’s budget would have kept 45 beds open. Patrick said that there has been a move away from treating the mentally ill in institutionalized settings and that the number of psychiatric beds in the state will not decrease because of the opening of a new, state-of-the-art mental health facility, the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.
But advocates and politicians fear that plan does not take into account the region’s needs.
Brenda Venice, a parent of two adult children with mental health issues who also heads the Greater Fall River chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that as recently as two weeks ago, her son was sent home from the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, and her family was told there was not an inpatient psychiatric bed available for him anywhere.
She also recalled the pain and difficulty of driving more than an hour to inpatient psychiatric hospitals in order to visit her teenage daughter.
“To have no beds in the Southeast area; you might as well say all the people with mental illness in this area will actually be either homeless or in jail, or turned to the streets,” Venice said.
State Representative Patricia Haddad, a Democrat from Somerset, said she planned to seek an override.
“We have maintained from the beginning that every section of the state deserves to have the full spectrum of services,” Haddad said.
State Senator Marc Pacheco, a Democrat from Taunton, said he was extremely disappointed by the veto.
“Patients, families in the Southeast have already been on the phone today, asking their legislators, including me, to seek an override,” Pacheco said.
The governor also halved $20 million that had been provided to increase the salaries of human services workers who provide care for people with disabilities and the elderly, instead channeling the remaining $10 million toward a program that alters the way the state pays such workers.
“We’re talking about a matter of maybe $6 a week, or somewhere around a buck a day of an increase, which when you consider that annualized increase has not been provided since fiscal year ’08, I think it’s extremely disappointing,” said Michael Weekes, chief executive of the Providers’ Council, an association of health and human service agencies that lobbied for the raises. He said the association would be considering its future options.
Brian Rosman, research director for Health Care for All, an advocacy group, said that he was pleased the state has continued its commitment to health reform but was disappointed it loosened restrictions on the state’s drug firm gift ban, allowing pharmaceutical companies to provide modest meals to physicians.
Politicians on both sides said they would take time to review the vetoes and the governor’s supplemental budget, which includes more than $70 million in spending on various programs, including information technology, summer jobs, and providing emergency housing for the homeless.
“Further assessment of his amendments to [food stamps] reform and other areas is necessary in order to determine whether or not Governor Patrick is making constructive recommendations or attempting to avoid substantive changes and reforms on key issues,” House minority leader Bradley Jones wrote in a statement.