Massachusetts' budget journey leaves a trail of political wreckage

Fifteen days into its new fiscal year, Massachusetts appears to have a budget. But the cost has been high -- in money, in time, and in further loss of public confidence in the state's political institutions.

Both houses of the Legislature passed the bitterly fought compromise measure July 15 by overwhelming majorities and sent it on to Gov. Edward J. King, who may veto or amend certain line items but is expected to sign it.

But along the way, the battle produced:

* A four-day strike by state employees whose pay was withheld for lack of a budget.

* A bitter outcry from pensioners and welfare recipients who also went without their checks.

* An estimated $500,000 bill for the services of National Guard troops slotted in to fill crucial jobs in state mental institutions.

* The resignation of one legislator -- Democratic Sen. Alan D. Sisitsky of Springfield, whose eccentric behavior has often drawn comment -- and a change of party (from Democratic to independent) by Boston Rep. Melvin H. King.He is the second black legislator to change party this year, following Sen. William Owens's switch from Democrat to Republican in February.

* A deepening rift between Gov. King and the Senate, whose members shaped much of the thrust of the budget (which eliminates or trims a number of agencies the governor holds dear) and whose president, William M. Bulger, is said to have gubernatorial aspirations.

* An increasing sense among Massachusetts voters that the state's leaders place a higher priority on slicing down each other than on trimming what are generally seen as flabby spending practices.

The budget debate was widely held to be the acid test of the Legislature's willingness to cope with Proposition 2 1/2 the measure cutting property taxes to 2.5 percent of assessed value, resoundingly approved in a referendum last November.

By agreeing to cut 3,000-to-5,000 state jobs and to send back $265 million in state aid to the commonwealth's 351 cities and towns, the legislators have responded to the spirit of the referendum better than many observers thought they would.

But the delays, horse-trading, and verbal brickbats flung between House and Senate, Senate and governor, and Legislature and protesting citizens have led others to note that commonwealth politics remain a laughingstock among its better-disciplined sister states.

One of the budget's most significant measures is a provision to allow 23 Greater Boston communities to withdraw from the 79-town public transportation system (the "T") that runs the region's buses and subways. In an age of nationwide fare increases and service reductions, Boston's financially troubled and aging sytem is under increasing criticism -- especially from the 23 communities which, although they are assessed $4.37 million to subsidize the sytem, get no direct service. The "T" justifies the charges by saying that they benefit from service into nearby towns.

Another measure, reflecting the Legislature's longstanding antipathy toward Mayor Kevin H. White's Boston, requires the city to restore its recently trimmed police and fire services as a condition for receiving some $39 million in additional aid. These services were cut by the mayor under pressure from Prop. 2 1/2 and the city's own financial plight -- although many, including some legislators, feel he s hould trim other, more patronage-laden areas.

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