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Patrick: Tough times are no time for state to hunker down

STEVE LEBLANC
Patrick: Tough times are no time for state to hunker down
Sonia Chang-Diaz (left) is congratulated by Gov. Deval Patrick (right) after the swearing-in of state senators at the State House recently. (Photo: Don West)

Gov. Deval Patrick warned residents of “dark economic clouds” in his annual State of the State speech last Thursday, but said now is not the time to hunker down and wait for skies to clear.

Instead, Patrick said that Massachusetts needs to forge ahead with new initiatives, from ethics reforms and a comprehensive anti-crime bill to an overhaul of the transportation system and a municipal package designed to help cities and towns raise more revenues.

“This is not the time to let up or give up. This is not the time to lose either our will or our way,” Patrick said.

The speech — equal parts pep talk and policy roadmap — came as Patrick faces making a second round of cuts to close a $1 billion budget gap.

Patrick didn’t detail those cuts, but acknowledged local services will take a hit and police, firefighters and teachers will face layoffs. He also made it clear that making those cuts isn’t a job he relishes, but one that is unavoidable.

Patrick made no reference to tax hikes in his speech, although in recent days he has indicated he may be willing to support an increase in the state gasoline tax, provided the increase is linked to transportation reform measures and toll cuts.

In the speech, Patrick acknowledged some of his own policy defeats, including his failure to convince lawmakers to support a bill to license three resort casinos. He conceded that the economic crisis has slowed his plans to dramatically overhaul the state’s public education system.

But he also pointed to successes, including passage of his 10-year, $1 billion life sciences bill, the ongoing success of the state’s landmark health care law and a series of clean energy and environmental initiatives.

He added that the state isn’t sitting back waiting for the economy to rebound. He said Massachusetts is launching $1 billion in building projects over the first half of the year.

Patrick also said the state is lobbying for federal stimulus funds that will help create new jobs installing solar panels and wind turbines and rebuilding roads, railways and bridges.

Patrick is hoping his personal ties to President-elect Barack Obama might help open up the spigot to those funds. In his speech, Patrick noted how his campaign slogan, “Together we can,” was echoed in Obama’s own message of “Yes we can.”

The fiscal crisis, Patrick said, is also an opportunity to push through reforms, including an ambitious ethics package for Beacon Hill, pension reforms to eliminate highly publicized abuses, and a radical overhaul of the state transportation system.

Patrick also made a new pitch for some of his earlier proposals, including a municipal partnership act, a portion of which would allow cities and towns to raise local taxes on meals and hotel rooms.

He also called for passage of a comprehensive anti-crime bill.

“Sentencing in the Commonwealth has become about warehousing people,” he said. “These practices may make a good sound bite, but they do nothing to make our communities safer.”

At times, the speech took on a personal tone, as when he called on state residents to refuse to succumb to defeat in the face of increasingly grim financial news.

“When I was growing up, we were forbidden from calling ourselves ‘poor,’” Patrick said. “My grandmother taught us to say we were broke, because ‘broke,’ she said, is temporary.”

He also sounded a somber note when referencing the ongoing toll that crime and violence continues to exact on minority communities across the state and said “in what feels like a personal tragedy for me,” the alarming rates at which black men are killing other black men.

Despite the challenges facing the state, Patrick said, the state needs to look forward.

“Hunkering down may be good advice in a hurricane, but it is not leadership,” he said. “The times we are in are tough, but temporary.”

The speech received mixed reviews, largely along party lines.

House Republican Leader Brad Jones faulted Patrick for being light on details. He said his rhetorical skills masked his failures to revamp the way business is done on Beacon Hill.

“We’ve had two years for meaningful reforms, and we haven’t seen a lot of that,” Jones said. “We’ll have to see if those actions match the rhetoric.”

Senate Republican Leader Richard Tisei said he was hoping to hear exactly where Patrick planned to make budget cuts.

He also criticized Patrick for fostering an “anti-business” climate on Beacon Hill at a time when the state should be doing more to lure employers. He pointed to Patrick’s support of legislation designed to close what the governor described as corporate tax “loopholes.”

“People want to know what the Legislature and state government in general is going to do to make the state more affordable,” said Tisei, R-Wakefield. “We should have an economic recovery plan here in Massachusetts like they are doing on the national level.”

Patrick’s speech won higher marks from fellow Democrats.

House Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo credited Patrick for showing leadership in dire times.

“He talked about ethics reform, he talked about pension reform, transportation reform,” said DeLeo, D-Winthrop. “I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting to work.”

(Associated Press)