- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

BOSTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) — The Massachusetts House appeared willing Tuesday to give Gov. Mitt Romney unprecedented powers to deal with a budget deficit, but with restrictions.

Members of the Democrat-controlled House said they want to know more specifically where cuts in local aid would be made before expanding the Republican governor's power to do so.

"He seeks a very broad sweep of authority," said House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran. "The members would like a little bit more specificity as to what the governor and his team have in mind."

The measure to give Romney more power to cut aid to the state's 351 cities and towns appeared on a fast-track on Monday, but lawmakers balked at giving him carte blanche authority without getting more detail. Action on the request could come later Tuesday, or perhaps be delayed even further.

Without the increase in budget-cutting powers, Romney has said he would be forced to make further cuts in human service programs to make up for a deficit that could grow as high as $600 million for the current fiscal year, which ends July 1.

Romney told reporters if the gap becomes so large, "I would anticipate that cuts that would be necessary could cut into essential services, either to cities and towns or into health and human services areas."

During last year's gubernatorial campaign, Romney had promised not to cut essential services or raise taxes to deal with this fiscal year's shortfall in revenues.

Finneran said he asked the governor to draw up two budget proposals — one to show how he would make cuts with expanded powers and one showing what he would do without them.

The state Senate, meanwhile, is waiting its turn to vote on expanding the governor's powers, but likely will set a time limit on them.

"You can count on there being a sunset, two or four years," said Senate President Robert E. Travaglini.

Any cuts in aid would have a dramatic impact on local communities. In Lawrence, for example, Superintendent of Schools Wilfredo T. Laboy has said he would consider ending the school year weeks early if the district can't pay its bills.

The state Department of Education, however, said reducing the school year, even in a budget crisis, is against state law.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino was expected to deliver a somber State of the City address Tuesday night. Faced with the possibility of losing $27 million in state aid this fiscal year, Menino has said there is a probability of layoffs and eliminations of some services.

He is expected to call for legislative approval for new "local option taxes" to help Boston generate revenues to deal with the cuts.

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