Tough local-aid forecast on the way
BOSTON -- City and town officials could get the bad news before the end of the week that local aid to schools and government services will be slashed by as much as 5 percent in next year's state budget.
The hope of passing a local-aid resolution vanished early this week with House and Senate leaders now resigned to giving municipal officials a more vague outline of state assistance that will include cuts to school and government aid, in hopes of helping local city and town officials craft their own budgets this spring.
Negotiations for a proposed resolution broke down over House Speaker Robert DeLeo's reluctance to commit to a predetermined local-aid total so early in the state budget process with tax collections and revenues for the coming months still uncertain, according to Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate.
Instead, Senate President Therese Murray and DeLeo are preparing to issue a joint statement as soon as today or tomorrow that would instruct local leaders to prepare for a more general cut of up to 5 percent, or possibly more, in Chapter 70 and unrestricted local aid.
No matter how they do it, the amount of local aid returned by the state to cities and towns will be significantly less than what Gov. Deval Patrick proposed with his own budget proposal in January.
A 5 percent cut would reduce state aid to cities and towns by about $250 million next year, likely forcing layoffs of police, teachers and firefighters.
"I think it's going to be devastating," said state Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell. "But at the same time, if we don't have the revenue, how can we be promising cities and towns money that we're going to have to cut down the road?"
Municipal leaders have been pressuring Beacon Hill to pass a resolution as soon as possible so that they can confidently present budgets to their own city councils and boards of selectmen without worrying that aid would be slashed come July 1 when the state budget is due.
Some towns will begin hosting Town Meetings as soon as next week to debate budgets for schools, public safety and local services that are dependent on aid from the state.
"I would have liked to have done a local-aid resolution two months ago, but I will go along with this statement," Murray told reporters Tuesday.
The Legislature did, in fact, pass a local-aid resolution in advance of the budget debate in 2008, but did not follow suit last year. Some Democratic House lawmakers suggested privately that DeLeo has been reluctant to force his members to vote on a resolution to cut local aid in an election year, hoping to protect them over the next month from drawing Republican or even Democratic challengers.
State Sen. Steve Panagiotakos, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, has also been pushing for an agreement on local aid. Though he said he would prefer to give local officials a concrete number to work with, he said even a general commitment on local aid is critical to helping communities plan.
Panagiotakos warned a month ago that local aid would have to be cut at least 3 percent, or $150 million.
Patrick, in his budget proposal, presented a plan that would level-fund Chapter 70 at $4.05 billion and unrestricted aid at $936 million next year, relying on a mix of reserves and new taxes to limit the hit on cities and towns.
Lawmakers, however, have expressed little interest in raising any new taxes, forcing deeper cuts to come from local aid and state social-service programs.
"It's a no-win situation," said Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg.
DiNatale, along with 12 other House Democrats, signed on to a Republican push that calls for a local-aid resolution guaranteeing level funding in Chapter 70, the largest pot of local aid for schools. The Republican minority plans to push the resolution during the next House formal session.
DiNatale said he joined with the GOP to help force a conversation, even though he is skeptical the state can afford to level-fund local aid.
"The sooner we can do something the better, obviously. The communities want to know how to plan," DiNatale said. "I signed on to (Minority Leader) Brad Jones's resolution to level-fund, even though I don't have any real confidence we're going to end up there. I needed to make an effort to get the dialogue going on our side of the aisle."
State Rep. Jim Arciero, D-Westford, also signed Jones' resolution, because he believes it is important to help cities and towns plan early for potentially painful cuts. He also filed a bill more than a year ago that would have required a local-aid resolution to be voted on every year by March 1.
"The most important issue for these towns right now is planning, and in order to do so we have to give them an accurate number," said Arciero, who represents Westford, Littleton and part of Chelmsford. "My towns have all shown fiscal foresight and have all planned for a 5 percent reduction. That is something we warned when we talked to them in January."
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