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IN THE NEWS- "Officials Pore Over Budget"
March 01, 2007

Officials pore over budget
By Hillary Chabot and Matt Murphy, Eagle Boston Bureau
Berkshire Eagle
 
Thursday, March 01
BOSTON — Local officials and legislators called Gov. Deval L. Patrick's $26.7 billion budget a good first step yesterday, but indicated there would be many changes ahead for the freshman governor's budget.

Patrick made several cuts — including $10 million from state police overtime and $22 million in Massachusetts tourism earmarks — to make up a $1.3 billion deficit. He also cut back on expected growth, such as docking $56 million in reimbursements for nursing homes.

But it's where Patrick didn't cut that left Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto happy.

"Gov. Patrick is honoring the commitment he made to cities and towns as it relates to education. The increase in funding in such tight times is refreshing. It takes political courage and a full understanding and it is clear that his priorities are consistent with his discussions in the campaign," Ruberto said.

Pittsfield got a $2.4 million increase in local aid, with the bulk of that bump going to fund education. Communities in the Berkshires had local aid increase $4 million, from $106 million last year to $110 million this year.

The bulk of the increases were in education funding, known as Chapter 70 aid, which Patrick increased by 5.7 percent in the overall budget.

But the region lost money in lottery aid, from $26.2 million last year to $25.9 million this year.

Some communities saw steep hikes in education funding, such as Pittsfield and Clarksburg, thanks to a new method of calculating Chapter 70 aid. The state considers personal income, property values, and the number of school children in a community to determine how much aid they need. Changes in either of those factors can increase or lower the amount of state aid.


But John Barrett III, mayor of North Adams, was singing a different tune from his Pittsfield counterpart.

The small increase of only $100,000 in Chapter 70 aid left him with a deficit because of the cost of sending some of the students to regional and charter schools.

"I hope I can say the same thing I did last year with (Gov. Mitt) Romney's budget. Dead on arrival. ... This is a kick in the butt," Barrett said.

Legislators are also taking issue with some of Patrick's cuts, which include $86 million in earmarks and a reduction of at least 300 line items. Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, bristled at the way Patrick's budget listed higher education funding, which folded all community colleges and state colleges into two line items.

"I think the governor said it best when he said it was the start of a conversation," Downing said. "I'd like to see specifically what the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the Berkshire Community College are receiving." Higher education spending was increased by $35.6 million, however a $350,000 program to expand the capacity of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts was cut.

Also of concern were Patrick's cuts to tourism, although Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said those cuts will probably be restored in either the House or Senate versions of the budget.

Rep. Christopher Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, applauded Patrick for cutting from state departments instead of cities and towns.

"I think he's recognized we are facing a challenge, he's asked executive agencies make some belt-tightening moves, but the way it looks is cities and towns are held harmless," Speranzo said.

Human service proponents also opposed Patrick's budget, saying a $14 million loss in funding for the Salary Reserve would hurt low-paid human service workers employees.

Patrick expected a push and pull to take place between himself, state departments and legislators about upcoming funding, but said at a press conference yesterday he believes his budget "creates a foundation for ... meaningful reform," in Massachusetts.

"We got, in quiet conversation, preparation for the push-back we're going get politically from outside advocates and also people in this building and that's fair. I understand it," Patrick said. "I think we have some selling to do."

Patrick further detailed the $515 million in cuts made to balance the budget, including a $35 million reduction by tightening the deadline MassHealth by which recipients must reapply for care from 60 to 45 days and elimination of the $3.4 million department which audited education funding.

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