A Budget Fix That Dares Not Speak Its Name

There’s a hole in the state budget, and yesterday Governor Patrick announced his plan to plug it. He’s using authority he already has to order immediate cuts to Executive Branch agencies. These cuts will make up most of the $329 million shortfall. His proposal for the remainder of the problem, however, requires the approval of the Legislature, and to judge from the early returns, that approval is unlikely.

The Governor would like the Legislature to agree to cut the amount of money that goes from the state directly to cities and towns for municipal services like public safety, schools and libraries. That money, known as unrestricted local aid, is understandably popular with legislators. And among Republican lawmakers, it is safe to say, only tax cuts are a more popular policy idea than local aid spending.

As in: yesterday, Representative Brad Jones, the House minority leader, called Patrick’s plan to cut local aid a “non-starter,” and Governor-elect Charlie Baker said through a spokesperson that “Massachusetts cities and towns deserve a dependable source of funding for crucial projects. As the transition process continues, Gov.-elect Baker looks forward to developing a responsible budget that delivers the services the people of Massachusetts need and protects taxpayers.”

And then this morning, House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced that he, too, opposes any local aid cuts.

The Governor’s budget chief is defending the proposal as a “balanced and thoughtful approach,” and says the administration has no alternative solutions. So it looks like we are heading for a stalemate.

But wait. Part of the budget hole — about $70 million — is attributable to a very tiny reduction in the state income tax that will take effect next year under an automatic formula the legislature devised. The reduction of .05 percent (from 5.2 percent to 5.15 percent) will mean about $50 extra per year for a family with an income of $100,000 and much less for families of lesser means. A similar tiny cut (from 5.25 percent to 5.2 percent) happened last year — how many of us even noticed?

The Legislature could act to defer this income tax reduction, which would reduce the budget hole by $70 million and would preserve local aid funding — and more. And even though we are as far away from an election (and the possibility of voter retribution) as we will ever be, nobody appears even willing to mention this possibility. Not even the guy who once wanted to have an adult conversation about taxes.

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