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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

This is getting serious

The giant sucking sound you hear is the air being let out of Deval Patrick's ambitious plans to remake Massachusetts.

But Patrick, legislative leaders and Treasure Tim Cahill are to be commended for getting serious three months into the fiscal year -- and three months before the Legislature is scheduled to return -- about trying to cut the state budget now.

A $223 million hole in revenues a quarter of the way onto the year is serious, serious stuff. A large part of those losses were before the Wall Street free fall, a fact that means the state's capital gains tax receipts are heading over the cliff.

The 7 to 10 percent cuts ordered by Patrick, House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Terry Murray in the accounts they control are really short money. There are lots of bigger accounts -- like local aid -- that will be held harmless, at least for now.

But the heart and soul of Patrick's proposals is going to require cashing in huge amounts of political capital -- something he still does not have in vast quantities.

Abolishing the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority would be a big enough task. Legislators have been utterly resistant to that catch during the years it was controlled by Republican governors.

But moving to rework the state employee and MBTA pension systems will make the Turnpike reform seem like small potatoes. There are thousands of people with a literally vested interest in those plans, which have helped blue collar workers enjoy a decent retirement -- and allowed double dippers to enjoy a second career on the backs of taxpayers.

These are first steps. Pension reforms are unlikely to produce great savings this fiscal year -- even if they were approved tomorrow. It's highly doubtful abolishing the Turnpike Authority would forestall a major toll hike.

Then there is the question of the income tax repeal. It would take the shortfall likely to grow to $1 billion or more and explode it by $12.5 billion. The state is already having problems in the short-term credit markets. Repeal would close down long-term borrowing too.

It will also be interesting to see if Patrick revives the casino gambling proposal as a revenue source, and if he does, how lawmakers will view it in the new fiscal reality.

Batten down the hatches. It is going to get really intense around here. Let's hope the Republicans do more than offer the cheap shot words of local flak Barney Keller, who echoed the words of the Washington GOP that put political points over solutions.

And with that prediction, I'm going to slink off for some long delayed R & R. Catch up with you in about a week. And, as always, thanks for stopping by and do come back again.

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