Reporter's Notebook | How the fiscal cliff looks from one man’s rehab bed

Was the 2012 election just a grinding interlude?

Mayor Tom Menino at Spaulding Rehab Hospital: Image courtesy WCVB-TVMayor Tom Menino at Spaulding Rehab Hospital: Image courtesy WCVB-TVGov. Deval Patrick, Mayor Thomas Menino and local politicians and policymakers turned their collective gaze this week to the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations in Washington as next year’s budget lurked in the background.

In D.C., familiar players dominated the headlines as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner offered and counter-offered. Massive spending cuts and tax increases in the area of $500 billion are set to go into effect at the start of 2013 if lawmakers don’t reach an agreement this month.

Obama and Boehner are getting plenty of advice from inside and outside the Beltway, the latter apparently including a letter Menino’s office sent over, a missive chock full of shots at the capital’s culture and glimpses of life inside Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Signed by Menino, the communication urges Obama and Boehner to speak plainly about “fiscal cliff” negotiations and asks them not to cut health research funding, pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars the Bay State receives from the federal government.

In the unusually informal letter, dated Dec. 1, Menino talks about the potential cuts through the lens of a big city mayor who has suffered “a lot of pain” over the last month. “So, yes, my perspective on the big budget debate happening in Washington is unique,” Menino, a Democrat, wrote. “Politicians are not used to taking orders. But here, doctors tell me what to do. (Actually, it’s the amazing nurses.) In Washington, ‘winning the 24-hour news cycle’ is victory. You know what victory is for patients down the hall from me? Walking.”

Menino, who spent most of November at Brigham and Women’s Hospital before last week’s transfer to Spaulding, also asked the pair to “tell the truth” on taxes. “Brian, my nurse, doesn’t come to my room in the morning to say, ‘Mayor, if you just sit here, unburdened by taxing exercises, free from our rehab rules and regulations, you will get stronger,’” Menino wrote. “He tells it like it is. You can, too.”

Menino also took a shot at the “grand bargain” that Obama and Boehner reportedly desire. “Outside of Washington, we don’t spend all day on your potential ‘Grand Bargain,’ ” Menino wrote. “Here, the term sounds like the frozen smoothie Brian offers me in exchange for another go at the stair machine. But if it means you’ll come together for the American people, do that. We’ve had enough Democrat and Republican speak for a while.”

Whether it was Menino who pecking the letter out on his iPad in between episodes of “Ellen” or, more likely, several staffers attempting to channel Will Rogers, the intended recipient did not appear to be either Obama or Boehner.

Along with the frequent press releases, it was aimed at a public that is reading near-daily write-ups of the mayor’s long hospital stay and noticing his absence from community events, large and small, from the local Christmas tree lightings in the neighborhoods to a postponed speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

But not all 2013 questions are related to whether there’ll be an open seat in City Hall: The budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts next year, is as worthy a topic as the possibility of that opening.

The Boston Municipal Research Bureau, which watchdogs city government, noted in its newsletter last week that early projections show a $28.4 million shortfall, with Boston Public Schools (BPS) and salary raises as the main culprits behind the possible deficit. BPS spending is expected to increase by $63 million, with a new busing contract likely to cost $18 million.

“The mayor will submit a balanced budget to the City Council on April 10, 2013, but this first look indicates that next year will be more fiscally challenging than the prior two years,” the newsletter notes.
Meredith Weenick, the city’s chief financial officer, said the projection isn’t a surprise and it’s consistent with what city budget officials have been saying since April.

Her shop is currently working on revenue estimates and they plan to give out guidance to city departments in the next month or so, when they start to get a better numerical whiff of exactly what Gov. Patrick will propose for local aid, which is the second largest source of revenue for the city.

There are also questions about the effect of potential cuts at the federal level, which could impact the Department of Neighborhood Development and Boston Police Department, she said.

The “fiscal cliff” cuts that could go into effect are also on Patrick’s mind. “By all accounts that uncertainty and the resulting slowdown in economic growth is the direct cause of our budget challenges. Economists agree that the fiscal cliff is keeping a tremendous amount of capital on the sidelines,” Patrick told reporters on Tuesday, according to the State House News Service.

Patrick is also looking to plug a $540 million hole that opened up halfway through the current budget. The governor said he plans to cut from agency budgets, withdraw $200 million from the state’s rainy day fund, and cut local aid by $9 million, if the Legislature signs off on his request.

“I don’t think this is draconian,” he said. “Obviously every city and town worries about an impact on their local aid, but, as I say, this is relatively modest. We are spreading the pain as broadly as possible and sensible and we have a solution for closing that gap in unrestricted local aid if the Lottery continues to help.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out updates to Boston’s political scene at The Lit Drop, located at dotnews.com/litdrop. Material from State House News Service was used in this report. Email us at newseditor@dotnews.com and follow us on Twitter: @LitDrop and @gintautasd.