Patrick speaks on status of state and plans for the future
By G. Michael Dobbs
Managing EditorNEWS ANALYSIS
SPRINGFIELD -- Usually an elected official has an apparent reason to speak with the press, but the invitation to meet with Gov. Deval Patrick for a "press round table" on Thursday carried no specific agenda.
Instead what could have been a press conference staged carefully by aides quickly took on the tone of a conversation.
After taping one-on-one interviews with two local television stations, Patrick sat down in one of the rooms of his Western Massachusetts office with other reporters for over 40 minutes.
The discussion covered the Soldiers Home, the proposed biomass plant for Springfield and rail initiatives for the region.
Patrick opened the talk with a series of statements about the accomplishments of his administration that included:
• closing a $9 billion budget gap in the last 18 months;
• creating three on-time balanced budgets with the Legislature;
• receiving an AA bond rating for the state;
• being first in the nation in student achievement;
• being first in the nation with clean and alternative energy policy;
• delivering on reforms with the state pension system, the transportation systems and competition with auto insurance;
• and investing more money in infrastructure, public housing, acquisition of open spaces and the renovation of public buildings than any other administration.
Patrick said that gradually, unemployment is decreasing in the Commonwealth and CNBC had moved the state from the 15th to the eighth spot on its list of best places to do business in the nation.
Despite the good news, Patrick acknowledged his administration and the Legislature have another "very difficult" budget to assemble for the next year.
"We're not out of the woods yet ... but I think we're on the right path," he said.
Patrick said the economic analysts believe that additional job growth will come this spring. There has been growth in fields such as healthcare, information technology and education -- areas on which the Patrick Administration has focused.
"It will take us more than a quarter or two to dig out of the hole. Let's be clear about that," he said. He added he believes his administration has the right strategies for job growth and must stick to them.
On the local hot button issue of the closing of the outpatient clinic of the Holyoke Soldiers Home, Patrick said, "No one was ever talking about eliminating services. The question was where the services would be."
The governor added that "in a time of scarcity" duplication of health services by other facilities is something his administration has to consider.
What he learned through comments made by veterans is how much they value where a service is offered. His solution, since he said the majority of the veterans have health insurance, is to contract for the services with a private firm that would be paid by insurance.
He said a Request for Proposal would be out this week and would be placed on a fast track.
"This was never about dishonoring the services of vets," he emphasized.
Patrick said his administration has no intention of privatizing the Soldiers Home.
"We have real challenges today and frankly, in every area of state government we are having to look hard where we can capture efficiencies and eliminate duplication and that's what the issues around the Soldiers Home have been about," he said.
Two local state projects are still on time, Patrick said. The state data center in Springfield will have a groundbreaking this spring and Patrick noted it has to be coordinated with Congressman Richard Neal's office.
There will also be a groundbreaking this spring for the high-performance computing center in Holyoke. Patrick said the six-month deadline he imposed for determining a site for the center is on schedule.
Patrick said that he shared the concerns people in the area have expressed about the proposed biomass plant that would use construction and demolition waste as fuel. He said his vision of a biomass plant would use a renewable fuel source such as switch grass.
"There is a right way and wrong way to do this. I think biomass has a place in our renewable energy strategy but again it ought to be a sustainable source," Patrick said.
He said an independent consultant is being brought in to review the state's biomass policy.
Speaking of accepting construction and demolition waste as a biomass fuel source, Patrick said, "I have to be persuaded by something I don't know [now] that's a good idea."
Despite his own objections, Patrick said the ultimate decision should be based on "science and not on instinct."
Although his administration has put greater emphasis in developing jobs in certain sectors, Patrick said state government is working on job development in other fields.
His administration will not "walk away" from fields such as precision tooling and light manufacturing. Instead, he wants to place greater emphasis on vocational training because of those industries' work force needs.
"The large point I'm trying to make is not just here in Western Massachusetts but all over the Commonwealth, we need to deal with where the economy is headed, not just where it is, but where it's headed and how we prepare everyone to take advantage of that," he said.
He noted there are demands for entry-level positions in the life science and the computing industries.
"There is a crying need for lab technicians," he said.
Agriculture jobs also need to be developed, he added.
Patrick declined to give a forecast in whether or not the state would be able to maintain the record amount of state funding for public school education. He said he has lobbied federal officials for more funds.
Noting the on-going uncertain financial future for the Commonwealth, Patrick said that he is in favor of rolling back the sales tax "when we can afford to do so."
"I believe we're not in a place to afford a rollback," he added.
Patrick and his cabinet members have been meeting with citizens around the state asking them what their priorities are for the next state budget. He said that when asked about what they would cut, those who have attended have suggested "almost nothing."
He noted at a meeting in Melrose, a show of hands indicated two-thirds of the people would consider an increase in taxes. He quickly added that some people indicated they did want an increase in taxes and other people didn't note any preference.
Noting fully the economic challenges facing people, Patrick said his administration would be "super sensitive" about proposing any new taxes.
He does not see casinos as a budget solution and said he does not intend to file any new legislation advocating for resort casinos. He said the Legislature knows his position and any movement on the casino question would be up to that governing body.
The proposed commuter rail line that would link Springfield to New Haven, Conn., is alive and a priority for the Patrick Administration. Grants are pending at the federal Department of Transportation for that project as well for additional rail service to Vermont.
During the interview, Patrick was asked why he had not formally announced his intentions to seek re-election. With a smile, he announced that he would be seeking another term, but clearly this was not the reason for his meeting.
"I will tell you, when I come to work every day I'm not thinking about re-election, I'm thinking about making a better Commonwealth," he said.