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Year in Review: 2008

Howard Manly
Year in Review: 2008
(Photo: AP /Stephan Savoia)

There’s Obama, and then the rest of the year’s stories.

At least until Jan. 20, 2009, the day Obama inherits the mess that George W. Bush leaves behind after his eight long years in the Oval Office.

The first mess was the nationwide economic meltdown. The bad news just kept coming throughout the year: collapses of Wall Street åforeclosures, desperate times for U.S. automakers and more.

It all added up to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and will cost the federal government well over $1 trillion in various rescue and stimulus packages.

Tied into the sour economy was the volatile oil market — where prices peaked at $4.11, then plunged below $1.70 in some areas — and the possibility of a much longer U.S. presence in Iraq.

The much-debated “surge” of U.S. troops helped reduce violence after more than five years of war, but Iraq is still buffeted daily by bombings, ambushes, kidnappings and political uncertainty. A newly ratified U.S.-Iraqi security agreement sets a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal by 2012.

As he turns to face these many problems, at least President Obama will have a friend in Massachusetts — Gov. Deval Patrick.

For Patrick, 2008 was a year when lofty goals like overhauling the state’s education system and reinventing the state’s economy ran headlong into the nation’s recession, forcing him to make one round of emergency budget cuts and casting a shadow over the state’s fiscal future for the coming year.

A $1-per-pack hike in the cigarette tax and a series of increases in business taxes estimated to bring in up to $500 million a year failed to make up for plummeting tax revenues, forcing Patrick in October to close a $1.4 billion budget hole with various cuts, the elimination of 1,000 state jobs and by borrowing $200 million from the state’s so-called “rainy day” fund.

“Just like families all across the Commonwealth, state government is feeling the pinch,” the governor said.

As the year ticked down, the fiscal news grew more dire, with predictions of another $750 million hole in the budget and possible cuts in local aid to cities and towns.

Despite the economic gloom, Patrick had reasons to celebrate in 2008. He signed into law a series of key initiatives — including the centerpiece of his economic recovery plan, a 10-year, $1 billion investment in life sciences. He also won approval for a $3 billion bridge-repair bill.

Patrick also was able to push through a plan to replace some police details at roadside construction sites with civilian flaggers. While the savings were modest, the symbolism of a Democratic governor taking on unions and succeeding where past Republican governors had failed was hard to ignore.

But Patrick also saw his share of defeats this past year, including the state Legislature’s rejection of his plan to license three resort-style casinos in Massachusetts. Patrick said the casinos would bring in hundreds of millions of sorely needed dollars, but opponents, led by House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, worried about creating a “casino culture” in Massachusetts.

Among the year’s biggest winners were environmental activists, who claimed a string of legislative victories on everything from ocean management and global warming initiatives, to the advance of “green jobs” and clean energy priorities.

Massachusetts voters got the chance to weigh in on three issues at the ballot box — including an initiative to decriminalize the possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, a move voters backed by a significant margin.

Voters also approved a question banning greyhound racing, but killed a proposal that would have eliminated the state income tax. Supporters had said the tax question would have forced the state to live within its means, but virtually every elected official, union and business group opposed it, saying it would bring fiscal ruin to Massachusetts.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

 For Year In Review photos click .