GOP blocks election season spending bill, service cuts warned

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 27, 2010…..A pair of prisons would close, services for homeless families would be curtailed, Medicaid benefits for low income residents would sharply cut and state troopers would lose their jobs if lawmakers fail to approve a $400 million spending bill, Patrick administration officials and legislative Democrats said Monday, squeezing House Republicans who questioned whether Democrats were exaggerating the bill’s urgency and rushing through campaign-season spending.

Rep. Karyn Polito (R-Shrewsbury), who has positioned herself as a fiscal conservative as she runs for state treasurer, stopped the bill Monday during an informal session of the House, when a single member can block any proposal.

“I have to assess whether this goes beyond what we can afford,” Polito said in a phone interview later.

Republicans have charged that Gov. Deval Patrick has been absent on the issue, leaving the shortfall to the Legislature to solve, an image Patrick administration officials contested, saying he has been actively working with legislative leaders behind closed doors to craft a bill.

The proposal spends the bulk of $450 million in federally approved one-time Medicaid funds, called FMAP, that Congress approved in August.

Patrick lashed out at Polito’s move and suggested lawmakers should return to formal session – such sessions typically end on July 31 in election years – if Republicans continue to stop the bill.

“We have prisons at risk of closing, we have people with developmental disabilities who are in halfway houses that will close, we have children who are developmentally delayed whose services are in jeopardy,” Patrick said. “We’ve been working on this for six weeks and until now, the Republicans have been working with the legislative leadership on the House side, and I just wish they’d get back to business.”

Asked whether lawmakers should return to formal session, where debates and recorded votes are allowed, Patrick added, “You know all those people I just mentioned whose services are in jeopardy? They could give a whit about the rules in the House and Senate. Whatever needs to happen needs to happen in order to get this done. I don’t care what it is. Let’s just get it done.”

Senate President Therese Murray said the House and Senate “always” pass supplemental budgets during informal sessions.

“This is something that can be done and is always done in an informal session. Always,” she said.

Murray said she doesn’t expect Republicans to hold the proposal up in the Senate.

Earlier Monday, Sen. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham) said he shared concerns of House Republicans about the process behind the bill’s development – it was released to House Ways and Means Committee members Friday night and to the House Monday – and that he had no information about prison closings.

In addition to spending hundreds of millions of dollars in FMAP funds, primarily on Medicaid services for low-income or disabled Massachusetts residents, the bill also cancels $100 million in planned spending from the state’s rainy day fund and transfers an additional $95 million to the fund. Patrick’s budget chief, Jay Gonzalez, said “there is a question” the legality of the transfer because the federal government has stipulated states may not use the one-time funds to replace spending funded out of rainy day accounts.

House budget chief Charles Murphy criticized Polito, telling reporters her actions would force homeless people onto the streets when shelter contracts expired in December. “It’s cold in December, generally,” he said.

“There’s $203 million in … spending that will affect real people, that will put people out on the street, that will not allow people the services they need because Karyn Polito wants to play politics,” he continued. “In this building, there’s time for politics and there’s time for trying to get some work done. We’re down there trying to get some real work done.”

Murphy said Republicans were given access to Ways and Means Committee staffers to answer their questions about the bill. The proposal includes 130-plus policy changes that he described as “technical.” Among them: a series of provisions in a stalled wind-energy bill favored by Senate President Therese Murray, a delay in the implementation of portions of a criminal recordkeeping law, and a slew of amendments to economic development consolidation and health care cost control laws.

Debate over the bill picked up an election-season flavor as Patrick’s Republican opponent, Charles Baker, issued a statement blasting the governor for “failure to manage the state budget.”

“Governor Patrick has failed to manage the state’s budget since the moment he got into office. Fewer than three months into the fiscal year, Governor Patrick’s budget – which was out of balance to begin with – continues to spiral out of control,” he said. “The Governor clearly intends to spend more money, but rather than taking ownership of the problem, he’s hiding behind the Legislature. The people of Massachusetts deserve a leader who will take this deficit head on and that’s what I’ll do if I’m elected governor.”

Other Republican lawmakers questioned the urgency of the funding, saying the 80-page, 137-section spending proposal needs greater scrutiny.

Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican, said Republicans want more time to review the bill. “We're not obstructionist but we want to know what we're passing,” said Hill.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Brad Jones said, “Other than closing out the books on the FY10 budget, I cannot in good conscience support rushing through the proposal polled out of the Ways and Means Committee Friday night and filed only moments before today’s informal session. The bill is 80 plus pages and some 134 outside sections. While it appears that the list of items to be funded has been pared back it remains extremely frustrating that such little information is available to the full membership from the Patrick-Murray Administration about the spending priorities for this fiscal year. If the Governor had kept his word and filed a plan there would have been dramatically more information about many of these spending items.”

Gonzalez disputed the suggestion that Patrick had been absent from the spending discussion, arguing that he submitted spending plans to shore up state prisons and other deficient accounts in June, when he signed the state budget but before Congress approved $450 million in so-called FMAP funds for Massachusetts.

About a dozen Democrats attended the informal House session, a higher-than-usual attendance compared to other recent sessions. But many absent members – Democrats and Republicans – made no secret that they were out on the campaign trail or soliciting campaign contributions, posting daily activities on Twitter that did not include a stop on Beacon Hill.

In December 2009, Patrick administration officials quickly denied plans to close prisons after a top public safety aide suggested it would be the only way to save money in tough fiscal times.

“With the DOC system at 146 percent capacity, it is impossible to close prisons without worsening overcrowding and possibly inviting federal court orders to release prisoners,” said Mary Beth Heffernan, who at the time was undersecretary for criminal justice and is now Gov. Deval Patrick’s secretary of public safety.

Leslie Walker, an advocate for prisoners, told the News Service Monday that the prison system is too overcrowded to absorb two prison closures.

“I can’t imagine where they’re going to fold people in,” she said. “The entire system is double-bunked and then some.”

Gonzalez, Patrick’s budget chief, said “there’s no question” that closing two prisons could leave the state vulnerable to litigation over exceeding overcrowding limits. He said if the spending bill fails to advance “soon” prisons could begin shutting down by the end of this year. He noted that an “extremely aggressive” prison shutdown would take about three months.

During Monday’s session, other Republicans doubted whether the bill complied with House rules requiring detailed summaries to be available for newly submitted bills.

“This bill is improperly before the House,” Rep. George Peterson said before being overruled by Rep. Paul Donato, the Medford Democrat chairing the session.

Donato said the House would return every day until the bill can be dealt with. Donato accused Republicans of election-year tactics, saying they have had “months” to discuss what is in the budget.

“I think they know what is inside this bill. It is an election year,” Donato said. “They are well aware what is in this supplemental budget. They have dealt with it for months.”

Donato said it was unclear whether Republicans would block the bill during a Tuesday session. Polito told the News Service she intends to attend that session.

The Ways and Means Committee released the final version of its bill Monday morning after circulating a similar version to members Friday night at 8 p.m. The committee voted 14-2 to approve the bill, with 2 members opting to withhold their vote and 13 not participating in the poll.