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Legislative leader rules out cut in local aid to help balance Massachusetts budget

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BOSTON — The top Democrat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives took local aid off the table on Thursday in discussions over how to close a state budget shortfall.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo ruled out any cut in local aid less than 24 hours after Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick included it as part of a plan to close a projected $329 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year that ends July 1. The governor asked lawmakers to reduce unrestricted assistance — state funds cities and towns can use at their own discretion — by $25.5 million, which would return levels to those of the previous fiscal year.

"Understanding the vital role cities and towns play in providing services and jobs, I will not support a reduction of unrestricted local aid," said DeLeo, D-Winthrop, in a statement. "Local aid is integral to helping municipalities accurately assess and plan their budgets so that they can contribute to the overall growth of the Commonwealth's economy."

DeLeo added he would confer with the House Ways and Means Committee on other items in the governor's bill, which includes a $10 million cut in the Department of Transportation and a request that most state government agencies outside the executive branch take a 1.5 percent reduction in their budgets.

Patrick ordered nearly $200 million in immediate spending cuts by exercising his authority to make mid-year adjustments in programs and agencies under his direct control, without legislative approval.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which advocates for cities and towns, applauded DeLeo on Thursday for opposing the local aid cut. But he noted that the unilateral budget reductions made by the administration would also hurt cities and towns in a variety of ways, and come at a time when communities have little recourse to make up the funding.

For example, the plan would reduce state funds for regional school transportation by 27 percent, and make smaller cuts in special education and charter school reimbursements.

"This kind of deficit sharing mid-year is extremely disruptive for cities and town because they have very few options," Beckwith said.

The administration blames the shortfall in the state's $36.5 billion budget on several factors, including a small reduction in the state's income tax rate that is automatically slated to take effect Jan. 1 and cost an estimated $70 million in tax revenue over the final six months of the fiscal year.

Glen Shor, Patrick's budget chief, told reporters the administration had no alternative plan for closing the gap if the Legislature balked at the cut in unrestricted local aid.

Republican Gov.-elect Charlie Baker, who takes office in January, also signaled his opposition to the local aid cut, saying through a spokesman that it should be the "last place" lawmakers should look to balance the budget.

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