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Patrick budget puts focus on education, transportation

Governor Deval Patrick outlined his budget proposal at a press conference.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

Governor Deval Patrick outlined his budget proposal at a press conference.

Governor Deval Patrick on Wednesday unveiled his final state budget plan, a $36.4 billion blueprint for the upcoming year that increases spending by 4.9 percent, focusing on priorities such as transportation and education.

The budget would boost spending on transportation by $141 million and on schooling from kindergarten through high school by $100 million. Spending on higher education would jump by $68 million and on early education by about $15 million, providing pre-school for 1,700 additional children from poor families.

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The state Department of Children and Families, which has been convulsed by scandal and is grappling with heavy caseloads, would see a $32.6 million increase. Officials said that would help reduce caseloads, which average about 18 per social worker, to about 15, in accordance with a previous commitment made by Patrick administration.

The Office of the Child Advocate, a state agency that monitors DCF, would see an increase of $185,000, to $500,000.

“I’m proud of this budget,” Patrick said at a State House press conference. “It’s a good budget. It’s a sensible budget.”

Not every area is being increased, however, and some advocates were disappointed with the budget. Local aid – which helps cities and towns pay for police officers, firefighters and other municipal services – would be level funded.

“This is actually a very difficult and painful budget for cities and towns,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents local officials. Beckwith said that, since 2008, local aid has fallen by about $400 million. “It’s disappointing,” he said.

In addition, the education increase for K-12 schools that Patrick hailed as a big step forward amounts to about $25 per pupil, Beckwith said, and that would force most school districts to make cuts because of increasing costs.

“Overall, this budget will force cities and towns to reduce services that they provide and increase reliance on the property tax to balance their budgets,” he said.

Unlike last year’s budget proposed by Patrick, which sought a $1.9 billion tax increase to fund a major expansion of education and transportation programs, this budget outlines more modest tax increases totaling $97 million.

Patrick would broaden the state’s bottle bill, make four business tax changes, and apply the state sales tax to candy and soda, which are currently exempt. The administration estimated the candy and soda tax would raise roughly $57 million. The Legislature has rejected all of these proposals in past years.

Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning budget research group, said Patrick’s focus on education and transit is commendable but his ability to make a lasting impact in those areas is limited since he chose not to push for larger tax increases in this budget.

“The governor called it a sensible budget, which I think is somewhat accurate,” Berger said. “But without significant new tax revenue, you really can’t make the kind of investments that would strengthen our economy in the long-term, substantially, so we see pretty modest investments in things like education.”

The budget relies on $334 million in one-time revenue, which is about half of what the current year’s budget uses.

About $175 million would come from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a reserve account that was intended for use only in fiscal emergencies but is frequently used to balance the budget. Another $53.5 million would come from the sale of gambling licenses. The budget also uses $32 million in one-time federal funds, and grabs $13 million by making changes in state Medicaid schedules.

The plan will likely undergo substantial changes in the House and Senate. The next budget year begins July 1.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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