Gov. Patrick signs $36B spending plan, asks lawmakers to expand budget-cutting authority

Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law Friday the final state budget of his administration, while also asking lawmakers to expand his authority to order spending cuts, if needed, during his last months in office.

The $36.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 is a continuation, Patrick said, of the administration's strategy of investing in education, infrastructure upgrades and cutting-edge industries such as life sciences.

"That has proven to be a successful strategy, as demonstrated by the fact that we have the highest level of employment in Massachusetts in some 25 years, and families are moving into Massachusetts again, instead of out," the governor said.

Patrick vetoed $16 million from the budget, representing only a tiny fraction of total spending.

The governor's second and final term ends in January. In an unexpected development Friday, Patrick filed a separate bill that would broaden his power to make targeted spending reductions in state government — without legislative approval — through Dec. 31, should the administration deem such cuts necessary.

Governors already possess more limited power to reduce spending in certain agencies under their direct control, but such authority is generally only exercised after economic downturns or when tax collections fall well below projections.

Patrick said the expanded powers he was seeking would allow the administration to reduce spending in one area so funds could then be reallocated to another area of more urgent need.

"Some may think that governors already have such tools. The truth is they don't, but should," he said.

Secretary of Administration and Finance Glen Shor later explained the request was not tied to any specific budgetary or revenue concerns.

"We're seeking a modest expansion of some of the authority we have right now to deal with unforeseen developments that are pressing and require a quick response to make room in the budget," said Shor, who as an example gave the recent sharp hike in heroin overdoses around the state.

If approved by lawmakers, the governor's budget-cutting powers would be broadened to include other entities such as state colleges, district attorneys and certain independent agencies, administration officials said.

Patrick said the fiscal 2015 budget increases state funding for public schools for an eighth straight year, reduces by 1,700 the wait list for spots in state subsidized prekindergarten programs, and allows for a second straight year without tuition or fee increases for in-state undergraduate students at University of Massachusetts.

The spending plan includes an additional $50 million to reduce social worker caseload at the state's beleaguered child welfare agency.

The governor also vetoed a budget provision seeking to exempt the MBTA's retirement system from the state's public records law, saying it would go against his desire for transparency in government.

Patrick returned to lawmakers a line item calling for a nearly $23,000 increase in the salaries of district attorneys. He said he wasn't opposed to the raises, but wanted to add language to study whether prosecutors who work under the DAs also deserve increases.