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Patrick seeks more power to cut budget

Says change necessary for emergencies; lawmakers alarmed and skeptical

Governor Deval Patrick.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe File

Governor Deval Patrick.

Governor Deval Patrick on Friday made an unusual request to the Legislature for greater budget-cutting powers in the closing months of his time in office, saying he needs to be able to act more swiftly to manage costs in the event of an unforeseen emergency.

The request — unveiled as the governor also signed into law a $36.5 billion annual state budget and issued $16.1 million in vetoes — took lawmakers by surprise and sparked alarm.

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“This sends up a red flag,” said Representative Patricia Haddad, the third-ranking lawmaker in the House. “Does he know something that he’s not sharing with the rest of us, that there is some economic or financial emergency on the horizon?”

Patrick’s budget chief, Glen Shor, insisted the administration was not anticipating any cuts in the coming months and said the request for broader power reflected the governor’s desire to be able to act more nimbly in the event that state revenues take a sudden tumble.

For example, if the economy went into freefall, a tornado hit, or a costly court ruling were issued, Patrick could cut the budget in one area and ask lawmakers to move the funds to another area.

Current law allows the governor to unilaterally cut the budget for a range of executive agencies, but Patrick’s bill would expand that power to the budgets of constitutional officers such as the treasurer and state auditor, as well as to district attorneys, sheriffs, and the state and community colleges and universities. Under current law, cuts to those agencies require legislative approval.

“In the course of a given fiscal year, there are going to be some pressing developments that are going to come up that require us to seek additional appropriations, but we’re not able necessarily to foresee that at the beginning of a budget cycle,” Shor said.

“We have always thought that, in the circumstances where this comes up, the best and fairest way is to have ample room to distribute any spending reductions fairly, and this would help achieve that,” he said. “Nothing is being targeted right now.”

Patrick ends his eight year run as governor in January. The expanded budget-cutting power would expire that month, when the next governor takes office. That means the new governor, whether it be Republican Charlie Baker, or any of the other candidates, would not inherit that broad authority.

Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, called the governor’s request odd when the economy is improving and tax revenues have been growing.

Widmer said if the governor is worried that the $36.5 billion annual budget he signed on Friday may need to be trimmed, he should have vetoed more than $16.1 million in spending.

“But the combination of minuscule vetoes and asking for emergency powers is peculiar and, I think, unprecedented,” Widmer said. “There doesn’t seem to be any reasonable explanation for this.”

He said it is highly unlikely that the House and Senate would grant the lame-duck governor greater power to cut spending. “There’s virtually zero chance that the Legislature would go along with it,” he said.

Senate Ways and Means chairman Stephen Brewer declined to comment until Shor briefs him on the request next week. A spokeswoman for House Ways and Means chairman Brian Dempsey said the chairman would not be available for comment Friday.

Haddad, the state representative, said she would be reluctant to approve the request since it would allow the governor to cut public-safety-related offices such as sheriffs and district attorneys.

“Maintaining the status quo would work better for me,” Haddad said.

Michael J. Widmer said that if Governor Patrick was worried he should have vetoed more in spending.

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Michael J. Widmer said that if Governor Patrick was worried he should have vetoed more in spending.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose office would be targeted under the governor’s legislation, said he was concerned about how across-the-board cuts from the governor would affect agencies such as his.

“I’m not sure a one-size-fits-all approach works,” Galvin said. “You’d want some guidance from the agency.”

There is precedent for the Legislature granting a governor budget-cutting powers, but it has historically been during — not before — an emergency. Lawmakers in 2003 gave Governor Mitt Romney the unilateral power to cut executive agency budgets, when the state was facing a revenue shortfall.

Patrick used those same powers to cut the budget during the recession and again in 2012, when the federal government was nearing a shutdown and tax revenues were falling. The governor’s new bill would expand those powers even further to include state agencies that do not fall under the executive branch. Shor said the recent opioid crisis, for example, shows how unpredictable costs can be.

Patrick made his request as he issued $16.1 million in vetoes that targeted more than two dozen areas, including $2.2 million for the Department of Correction, $1.8 million for state parks and recreation, $750,000 for the Tufts Veterinary School, which receives state funding for tuition subsidies, and $549,000 for a state dam program.

The vetoes also eliminated earmarks for some local projects, such as $325,000 for the restoration of Perry Auditorium at Gardner City Hall, $150,000 to clean up pond algae and invasive vegetation in Plymouth, and $22,000 for a hydraulic analysis of a dam in Medway.

At a press conference at the State House, Patrick pointed out that his vetoes amount to less than 1 percent of the $36.5 billion budget, which he said reflected how few areas of disagreement he had with the budget approved by the House and Senate.

“It’s a short list because I will say the Legislature sent a budget which is very consistent with the proposal I made in January, particularly in the areas of highest impact,” he said.

Patrick also vetoed an attempt by the Legislature to weaken a new state law that requires the MBTA retirement fund to abide by the same disclosure and ethics rules that apply to other pensions for public workers.

The law, approved just last year, was designed to open the normally secretive operation to greater scrutiny. Patrick said he believes that greater transparency in the MBTA pension fund is important.

The governor sent back to the Legislature another part of the budget that would give the state’s 11 district attorneys a $23,000, or 15 percent, pay hike, bumping them from $148,843 to $171,561. Patrick did not veto those pay hikes, and said he supports them and will sign them into law. But he added an amendment to them that would set up a commission to study the low salaries earned by the state’s 700 assistant district attorneys, whose starting pay is $37,500, and by the state’s approximately 480 public defenders, who start at $40,000 a year.

Patrick’s vetoes and changes now go to the House and Senate, which are expected to act swiftly to override them, as the law allows them to do. The items Patrick cut “were in the budget for a reason,” Brewer said. He added, however, that he was pleased that Patrick cut less than 1 percent of the budget. “The governor has been very respectful,” he said.

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