Governor Deval Patrick pitched $329 million in midyear budget cuts Wednesday, but immediately faced strong opposition to proposed reductions in aid to cities and towns.
Patrick, facing a final budget challenge before he cedes the corner office to Governor-elect Charlie Baker in January, can unilaterally impose most of the cuts he unveiled.
But he needs legislative approval for about $58 million in reductions — including a $25.5 million proposed cut in general aid to municipalities. And there appeared to be little appetite among Democratic and Republican legislators to slice funding for local schools, libraries, and police forces.
“From my perspective, a local aid cut is really a non-starter,” said House minority leader Bradley Jones, a Republican from North Reading.
With the Legislature in informal sessions until the end of the year, even a single lawmaker can block legislation.
Patrick’s broader package distributes cuts across wide swaths of state government, trimming from environmental protection, mental health services, and the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, which takes a $4.6 million hit.
Glen Shor, state secretary of administration and finance, told reporters Wednesday that the Patrick administration worked to minimize the impact of the reductions.
“We have done our very best to protect investments that are critical to the Commonwealth’s future and avoid negative impacts on the most vulnerable of our residents,” he said.
The governor, he said, did not make any cuts to the Department of Children and Families, the state’s publicly funded colleges, and the main source of K-12 education funding.
But Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, said the administration’s claim that it is protecting education funding is misleading.
The governor is imposing more than $40 million in cuts to cities and towns that do not require legislative approval, according to the association’s tally. And the figure includes reductions in special education reimbursements and funding for school transportation.
“There’s no other way to put it,” Beckwith said. “The governor’s proposal is an attempt to shift the state’s budget problems onto the backs of cities and towns all over Massachusetts.”
Shor, the governor’s budget chief, suggested the administration is just asking cities and towns to pitch in at a difficult moment.
“Obviously, we’re asking cities and towns to help us in solving the state budget gap,” he said. “Many [state] executive branch agencies are going through the same dynamic — being asked to recalibrate their original expectations for the year.”
Midyear budget adjustments are common. Revenue sometimes falls short of expected levels, and unexpected expenses come up.
Administration officials cited three main sources for the $329 million shortfall.
State law will likely trigger a decrease in the state’s income tax to 5.15 percent from 5.2 in January, costing the state $70 million.
An economic development bill passed this past summer will have an $80 million impact. And the state is coming up about $175 million short in various anticipated fees and reimbursements.
But the problem could be larger than the Patrick administration’s estimates. Andrew Bagley, director of research and public affairs at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which tracks state finances, said the true budget gap could be $500 million to $600 million.
A shortfall of that size would require Baker to take the knife to the state budget soon after coming into office, even as he puts together a spending blueprint for the new fiscal year that starts in July.
Baker’s response to Patrick’s midyear budget cuts suggests he won’t be looking to reduce local aid when he takes office.
“Governor-elect Baker hopes local aid is the last place the Legislature would ever look to for cuts because Massachusetts cities and towns deserve a dependable source of funding for crucial projects,” Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said in a statement Wednesday.
Patrick’s $58 million legislative package includes about $22 million in reductions to state agencies beyond his direct control, such as the attorney general’s office, the treasurer’s office, and the offices of the state’s district attorneys.
Those agencies would take 1.5 percent across-the-board reductions.
The governor is also asking for a $10 million reduction to the state Department of Transportation that he cannot impose on his own.
In addition to the cuts, Patrick wants lawmakers to direct about $20 million in fees from casino companies to the budget gap.
Without the Legislature’s intervention, that money will land in the state’s rainy day fund.
The state’s top lawmakers, still poring over the details of Patrick’s proposal, offered only muted response Wednesday. The office of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, said he was awaiting the Ways and Means Committee’s review.
In a statement, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer praised the administration for steering clear of the rainy day fund and said he hopes that “as our economy continues to recover, our commitment to local aid receives the highest priority.”
The Barre Democrat also sounded a note of sympathy for the departing governor.
“I did not envy the executive office in its exercise of fiduciary responsibility,” he said.