SPRINGFIELD - Before a backdrop of 50 Springfield Technical Community College students, Governor Deval Patrick told a standing-room only audience at Scibelli Hall on April 11 that not only did he want to hear their concerns, but also he called for their support to seek answers for problems.
In an effort to speak directly with his supporters and re-energize his base, the governor told the audience what he said he tells his staff: "Bring any problem you like, but bring a solution, too."
In an exclusive interview with Reminder Publications prior to his meeting, Patrick remarked on media accounts of the reactions the state budget he has proposed has garnered from members of the Legislature and how to build a relationship with the House and Senate.
"The [budget] process has really just begun," he said.
Describing his budget as "thoughtful and balanced," Patrick said the House's budget came out that day and it embraces some of his ideas, and scales back other aspects of his budget. He added the House's version does not address the financial structural issues his budget includes and predicted that if the Legislature ignores those structural concerns, they will still be an issue next year.
The Senate will be releasing their version next month and Patrick said at that point the negotiations would begin.
"We are going to fight for the doubling of spending for early daycare programs and a 46 percent increase in all-day kindergarten programs, Patrick said of two of his line items.
"COPS" is another program Patrick wants funded as that will give the state the flexibility to work with individual police chiefs on "tailored solutions" for their communities. He said, for example, some chiefs might call for more community policing efforts, while others want more officers on the streets. After-school and summer camp programs for at-risk youth are also tools available to prevent crime under this program.
"There's no doubt there are things every new governor has to learn about working with the Legislature, but there are things this legislature has to learn about working with me," Patrick said.
He said he wants "the latitude to govern," which he does not think diminishes the role of the legislature. He explained that consolidating many line items give him greater flexibility to govern.
He used an example illustrating this flexibility. Recently Thomas Menino, the mayor of Boston, asked for help in combating guns and gang violence. Patrick said his administration was able to identify $5.4 million to fund summer jobs for at-risk youth and $2.2 million of that will go to Boston.
Menino also needed financing that would allow a class of police officers to move forward. Patrick said he could find a small portion of what was needed, but not the full amount. If the Legislature would allow the governor the authority to transfer funds from a $25 million emergency fund, he could solve the entire problem.
When asked about the opposition from the local tourism industry for Patrick's support of a local option for municipalities to impose additional meal and hotel taxes, Patrick said his support comes from the pressure to relieve the property tax burden in the state.
Patrick has several initiatives in his budget to help communities lower their property taxes. Individual taxpayers could qualify for an increased tax credit program and cities and towns could reduce costs in health insurance and pensions by joining the state's programs.
The governor said his support is to allow each community to decide if they want to put "another penny or two on that hamburger, on that room tax" He said that even if municipalities went to the maximum allowed by the legislation the state would still be lower than many other cities around the country with which the state competes for tourist dollars.
Patrick said he wasn't supporting the measure lightly and that it was part of his effort to partner with communities.
"I'm asking a lot from them," he said. I'm asking for better planning regionally and across the Commonwealth. I'm asking them to join us in streamlining the permitting process, as that is part of our economic initiative. And I want to be able to provide things in return that can help communities strengthen themselves."
When asked about the media coverage of his first 100 days in office, he said, "We've been at this for 97 days. There is a long list of tangible accomplishments that are about implementing the vision that I campaigned on. I'm just getting started. I'm not worried about all that [negative media reports]."
He said he couldn't take the time to analyze why the media has emphasized certain stories, but he has learned of the "intrusiveness of the job." He said it takes twice as long to go through a grocery checkout line and that he has to be aware that people might mis-interpret a facial expression. He said his children have been warning him for years that his look when he concentrates on what someone is saying could be mis-interpreted as a frown.
He said he had a recent lengthy conversation with President Bill Clinton who told him how important it was to concentrate on long-term goals. Patrick said his job was to focus on doing his job.
Patrick used the first half hour of his town meeting to talk about some of the specific accomplishments of his first three months in office. He said he has reduced the permitting time for many businesses from two to three years to six months and two months for insurance products. He has appointed a "sales team" that is reviewing a list of 382 businesses determining what each needs to stay in the state or how they can be brought to the state. Patrick asserted this effort, when it is completed, could result in as many as 100,000 new jobs by the end of his term.
The governor said he has also signed the regional green house gas agreement, he said he can auction off the credits earned by the state through this agreement to create a funding pool that will advance the development of energy-saving technologies.
He has worked with the Legislature to create a small business loan fund and a $1.47 bond bill to finance needed infrastructure improvements on the state's roads and bridges.
Patrick also has reversed former Governor Mitt Romney's stand on stem cell research.
He said he was "governing for the long term," and that vision was not enough to govern. He needs power and influence to move along his agenda. That power is not from 20-year relationships with legislators but from the voters who support him.
"I didn't expect you to return to repose [after the election]," Patrick said,
"You want property tax relief?" he asked. "Come and get them. Make your voices heard. They're on the table."
"Every day you have to act like the State House is your house," he added.
Patrick heard issues ranging from the controversial logging in Agawam's Robinson State Park to working to preserve the Commonwealth's dairy farms.
A re-occurring theme was the establishment of a governor's office in Western Massachusetts. Romney had eliminated the office that had been established by governors before him.
Patrick, who owns a vacation home in Richmond, joked he'd like to have the office in Pittsfield, as it would be 15 minutes from his house. He conceded that Springfield would be a better location.
Funding is what is holding up the Springfield office, and Patrick said the office would be a reality if "the budget process works out as we hoped."
Patrick said the Finance Control Board will be extended by one year to July 2008, but the composition of the board might change as will its role. The governor envisions the board to help implement the economic development plans Patrick's administration is working on for Springfield.
In other answers to questions, Patrick voiced his support for a bill that would eliminate a 92-year-old tax exemption telephone companies have enjoyed on poles and lines. Other states have eliminated similar exemptions without an increase in telephone rates and communities would be the beneficiaries of the new tax. Springfield, for example, would receive $2.7 million.
In a show of cooperation, Patrick said he and the leadership of the Legislature have agreed to form a commission to simplify the state's tax code. Massachusetts, Patrick said, is ranked 40th in the national for its total tax burden, despite the nickname "Taxachusetts," but has an overly complicated tax code.
After speaking for about an hour-and-a-half, Patrick said he would stay as long as necessary to answer questions as there were still people lined up to speak.