Mass. finance chief criticizes 'risky' budget move

AP News
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Posted: Nov 20, 2009 12:57 PM

The top budget official in Massachusetts says the Legislature has taken a "risky" approach by adjourning for the remainder of the year without closing a projected $125 million state budget deficit.

Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Friday that Wall Street credit agencies recently reaffirmed the state's bond rating in part because of its proactive financial management.

He said "crossing our fingers, and hoping our revenues will get better and solve our problem, is not responsible budget management. It's risky."

In response, Gonzalez said, Gov. Deval Patrick is now preparing a plan to close the remaining deficit unilaterally, since the House and Senate rejected his request to give him expanded authority to cut legislative, judicial and constitutional officer budgets. That could trigger deep program cuts.

"I am very concerned about leaving our budget shortfall unaddressed," Gonzalez told the business leaders. "The longer we wait to make cuts that need to be made, the deeper the impact on programs and services."

The sharp words amounted to a follow-up jab by the administration. On Thursday, Patrick made an unscheduled appearance in the Statehouse press gallery to make many of the same points himself.

He accused the Legislature of "brinksmanship" and urged members to reconvene to pass a crime bill, education overhaul and give him more budget-balancing authority.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo offered a tart response to the governor, who is gearing up his 2010 re-election campaign.

"Governor Patrick's comments seem to be more about political necessity than 'moral obligation,'" DeLeo aide Seth Gitell said in a written statement. "Speaker DeLeo's obligation is to the commonwealth's schoolchildren _ not Governor Patrick's political calendar."

House and Senate budget leaders argued they had done what's needed by making more than $400 million in cuts, but hours after Gonzalez spoke, DeLeo announced a five-day furlough program for 540 House staff members. He estimated it would save $620,000 during the budget year. The 160 members of the House itself will have to participate voluntarily, since legislative salaries are set by a constitutional amendment.

"Every corner of state government has been hit by the recession, and the House is no different," DeLeo said in a joint statement with Rep. Bradley H. Jones Jr. of North Reading, who serves as the chamber's minority leader.

House and Senate budget leaders also defended themselves by saying they are asking constitutional officers and the judiciary to make voluntary cuts within their own budgets, arguing they know how to control them better than the governor or the House and Senate.

In a related development, Gonzalez announced that four unions representing 75 percent of the state's 40,000-person executive branch union work force have agreed to forgo raises and take furloughs to join management employees in staving off potential layoffs.

Negotiators for AFSCME, NAGE, SEIU Local 509 and SEIU Local 888 struck the deals this week and now are presenting them to rank and file for approval.

Gonzalez said the deals would create "tens of millions in savings" and represented the first time a governor had gotten a furlough agreement and delay in contracted wage increase since state employee collective bargaining started in 1974.

Patrick said in October that Massachusetts would have to cut about 2,000 jobs to close an estimated $600 million budget deficit. He said 1,000 of those cuts would happen regardless, due to program cuts. But he called on unions to match management concessions to avoid up to 1,000 layoffs he feared would drastically harm the state's delivery of services.

The governor ordered managers to take up to nine furlough days, depending on their salary. Gonzalez said the unions had matched the savings either through furloughs, compensation givebacks or a combination of both.

After his speech, the secretary told reporters that if the agreements are ratified, it would save "hundreds" of jobs.

The administration continues to negotiate with unions representing State Police troopers and other government employees.