- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

BOSTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) — Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney has proposed a "bold" $22.8 billion budget for 2004 that calls for sweeping changes in state government and layoffs, but no new taxes.

Connecticut Republican Gov. John Rowland, meanwhile, was expected to sign a tax-raising budget approved early Thursday by the Senate.

Romney's plan was immediately met with skepticism by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"It's just a proposal," said House Speaker Thomas Finneran.

In past years, budget proposals by Republican governors have been savaged by Democrats in the Legislature.

The House and Senate over the next several weeks will digest Romney's proposal and approve their own versions sometime this spring.

Romney said his budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 could close a $3.2 billion deficit through a combination of reform plans, cuts to programs and aid to cities and towns, and some 100 fee hikes.

It would also result in some 2,000 state workers losing their jobs.

"The budget is balanced, it doesn't raise taxes, it preserves our commitment to care for those who can't care for themselves," Romney said in announcing details of his budget at a Wednesday news conference.

"This is my chance to be bold," Romney said.

Romney would raise some $600 million through increased fees for such things ranging from bar exams to vehicle licenses, $128 million by closing corporate tax loopholes, raise tuition at state colleges and universities by $50 million.

He proposed merging six colleges into three and would eliminate the office of the University of Massachusetts president, a position held by William Bulger, who served 17 years as president of the state Senate.

Observers said Bulger's many friends in the Legislature likely would preserve his job.

Among the cuts he proposed is scraping the $98 million Prescription Advantage program that helps some 80,000 seniors buy drugs cheaply.

He would cut some $232 million from the $5.3 billion local aid account, a reduction of about 5 percent.

Romney also held out the possibility of expanding legalized gambling with slot machines at a half-dozen locations in the state unless casino operators in Connecticut and Rhode Island pay $75 million to Massachusetts.

In Connecticut, the state Senate early Thursday broke a month-long deadlock and approved a budget that Rowland's aides indicated he would sign by Friday.

The package was designed to help close a $650 million deficit in the current fiscal year and a deficit of about $2 billion in the coming fiscal year.

The Hartford Courant said the measure goes far beyond the so-called "millionaires' tax" that was proposed earlier, and imposes a tax increase of about one-half of a percentage point on those earning $22,500 or more.

The bill also imposes a 6 percent sales tax on newspapers, magazine subscriptions, and health clubs, ups the cigarette by 40 cents per pack to $1.51, and increase the conveyance tax on real estate transactions.

The same bill was approved earlier this week by the House.

The bill was seen as a defeat for state employee unions, which had demanded it include a reinstatement of 2,800 workers Rowland laid off because the unions refused to go along with wage and benefit givebacks.

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