How much cutting is really going on?

The Legislature and the judiciary balked last week at letting Gov. Deval Patrick unilaterally cut their spending accounts, perhaps because they were concerned he would make real cuts in their budgets.

To close a $1.1 billion budget gap, the Legislature gave Patrick the power to make mid-year spending cuts, including reductions in local aid. But the Legislature refused to give Patrick the power to unilaterally cut its spending accounts, as well as those of the judiciary and other constitutional officers. Instead, legislative and judicial officials said they would voluntarily cut their spending as they did in October when Patrick was faced with what at the time was a $1.4 billion shortfall.

"We recognize that these tough times will require tough decisions and sacrifices at every level," Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Sal DiMasi said in a joint statement. "The Legislature is determined to lead by example and be part of the solution as we move through this difficult economic period."

But a review of the spending reductions proposed so far by the Legislature and the judiciary indicates their budget cuts have not required much sacrifice. Both branches of government have provided limited information about where they are cutting spending, but it appears most of the budget reductions have been accomplished without significant layoffs or reductions in core accounts.

The Legislature, for example, promised to cut $9.1 million in spending in October and last week said it would cut another $1.6 million. Legislative officials were unable to document exactly where the $10.7 million in total savings will come from, but it appears a large chunk of the money will come from reserve accounts. In essence, the Legislature will draw down money it has put aside for future spending needs rather than actually cutting its budget.

A press release issued last week by DiMasi and Murray said the Legislature had frozen all spending on travel, hiring, capital improvements, and salary increases. The press release identified $50,000 in savings from renegotiating a Xerox lease and promised to eliminate the Legislative Data Processing Office, the Legislative Bulletin Office, and unfilled positions in the Legislative Document Room.

David Guarino, DiMasi's spokesman, said he did not know how much money would be saved by each of the cost-saving measures. He said he assumed there would be layoffs as a result of the legislative office closings, but didn't know how many.

Guarino said the $10.7 million in savings would come from a combination of reducing spending and drawing down reserve accounts. The Legislature's overall budget appropriation this year was $59.6 million, but it had another $31.5 million stashed in its reserve accounts. The reserve accounts represent money carried forward from one year to the next and retained for capital projects or other spending needs. Such accounts are unusual in state government, where money unspent at the end of a year typically reverts to the state's general fund.

David Falcone, a spokesman for Murray, did not return repeated phone calls.

The state's Trial Court promised in October to cut 7 percent of its remaining appropriation for fiscal 2009, or $31.8 million, but the Patrick administration is counting only $18.8 million as real savings. The discrepancy centers around $13 million the Trial Court said would be saved by not funding a pay hike for 3,500 employees. The Patrick administration says the $13 million doesn't count as savings because the money for the pay raise had never been included in the court's original budget.

The Trial Court provided CWunbound with a breakdown of its other spending cuts, but there were few details on how they would be implemented. The court said it would save $7.3 million by imposing a hiring freeze, $2 million by implementing "efficiencies in operation of state-owned court facilities,"  $1.75 million through non-personnel savings at the probation department, and $1.85 million by canceling the planned lease of 2,000 personal computers and deferring the opening of child care centers.

Other savings identified by the Trial Court included $350,000 by canceling educational conferences, $106,000 by banning out of state travel, $200,000 by ending a Northeastern University coop program, and $1 million by slicing expenditures for legal books, electronic legal research services, and subscriptions to legal publications by 20 percent.

Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the courts, said about $100,000 would be saved by cutting back on subscriptions to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Cyndi Roy, a spokesman for Patrick's administration and finance office, said the administration had sought more flexibility in making spending reductions, but the Legislature limited the governor's budget-cutting authority to the executive branch and local aid to cities and towns. The Legislature also said only a third of the governor's budget cuts could come from local aid, Roy said.

"Given our financial condition, it's important we have as broad powers as possible to make equitable cuts across the state budget," Roy said.