Ménage-à-trashed?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 11, 2007

Patrick had stressed the importance of a structurally balanced budget, but the legislature passed one that includes more than $600 million in what he once called “gimmicks,” including a quarter-billion taken from the rainy-day fund. His proposal for direct property-tax relief through an expansion of the “circuit-breaker” tax break currently only available to senior citizens, is gone. Funding for 250 police officers has been reduced to support for 50. His plans to consolidate homeless-program accounts, parks operations, and other line items were dashed. His aggressive effort to gain efficiency in the courts by centralizing budgets was completely ignored. His corporate “tax loophole” reforms were deferred, as were his local-options taxes. A $50 million fund he wanted for upcoming collective-bargaining contracts was eliminated. His cuts to water and sewer-rate relief were almost entirely restored.

These are not cases of simply lacking money in a tight budget for new spending, as several legislators and their aides were willing to acknowledge to the Phoenix. Legislative leaders just didn’t like the direction Patrick was heading — in either the broad fiscal strokes or the specific spending initiatives. After all, Patrick, in a departure from politics as usual, wants greater flexibility in how he and his managers spend the state’s money; the legislature wants to continue specifying how and where to spend it. Ultimately, though, the legislature writes the budget, and the governor has to live with it. And therein lies the rub.

In your earmarks
In other words, Patrick can’t do much about most of this — he can’t reintroduce line items that the legislature left out. And it’s unlikely that he’ll simply refuse to sign the budget as a whole.

But he can engage in payback: one legislative staffer suspects that Patrick might veto funding for programs dear to DiMasi’s heart. Or, if the governor is feeling especially petty, he could veto the $21 million local law-enforcement grant program, the $2.5 million in new district-attorney funding, the $5 million extra for the public-defender system, and the $4 million increase in substance-abuse services — which would add up to the amount they stiffed him on his new-cops proposal. And he has the perfect cover to do it: his stated desire to balance the budget without raiding the rainy-day fund.

More likely, however, is that Patrick might wield a busy veto pen against the direct earmarks the legislature brazenly stuck back into the budget after Patrick had removed them. The elimination of millions of dollars of earmarks, after all, was Patrick’s most direct challenge to what he and his supporters called the old way of doing business on Beacon Hill, when he introduced his budget proposal back in February.

Of course, he never had an A-Rod’s chance in the Cask to win the fight over earmarks. To pick that battle was either idiotic — for making enemies without the possibility of success — or admirable, for the same reason.

And so Patrick is more or less back where he started, only now, the legislature is practically flaunting its love affair with the earmark.

Take, for example, line item 7007-0900, which funds travel and tourism efforts in the state. In his crackdown on pork, Patrick slashed that item in half, to $14.7 million.

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