Lowell Sun: In State of State Gov Patrick hopeful for future while admitting painful cuts lie ahead

By Matt Murphy

BOSTON — With the deepening economic crisis as a backdrop, Gov. Deval Patrick called for shared sacrifice last night in his annual State of the State speech, promising to use the turbulent times as a platform to push for significant reforms in the pension system as well as transportation, public safety, municipal government and ethics.

He also spoke frankly about what looming cuts to local aid will mean for cities and towns as he prepares to confront a new $1.1 billion gap in the state budget that will surely lead to cuts in local services, as well as teachers, police and firefighters losing their jobs.

“Behind every one of those budget line items, I see somebody’s best chance or only chance,” Patrick said. “And I will do my best to make the decisions I have to make with the impact clearly in mind.”

The governor offered few details about what form the cuts will take later this month, instead using his time in the spotlight to try to reassure an anxious public worried about losing jobs and retirement savings, not to mention paying the rent. He asked residents to help one another, calling “Together We Can” — like “Yes, We Can” — more than just a political slogan.

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

He also peppered his remarks with thanks to the Legislature for a productive first two years that delivered a $1 billion life-sciences bill, energy reform and investments in public education.

“He’s a great speaker,” said Rep. William Greene, D-Billerica. “He put it all on the table and certainly didn’t pull any punches. It’s going to be a tough year, and he laid it right out there.”

Adding a personal touch that has become a hallmark of his major speeches, Patrick drew laughter from the packed House chamber that included his wife, Diane, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft with a story about growing up “broke” in Chicago.

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

Patrick has been blunt about saying this time of financial crisis might be just the opportunity to push through significant reforms, highlighting five specific goals he intends to push over the next year.

Patrick also acknowledged places where he has come up short of delivering on his promises, noting the inability thus far to reduce property taxes and the defeat of his casino-gambling proposal. He said his ambitious plans to reform education are not dead, but might happen more slowly than he had hoped because of the lack of revenue.

Patrick said he will reintroduce his Municipal Partnership Act, which includes local options for modest meals and hotel taxes, along with the elimination of a tax exemption for phone companies that allows them to avoid paying property taxes on telephone poles and other equipment.

Patrick said if the state can’t provide direct financial aid to cities and towns, it can at least give local leaders the tools they need to balance their budgets.

He and the Legislature have already begun to work toward streamlining the state’s transportation system, and he called for a comprehensive crime bill that will reform the criminal system by making sure offenders can be re-integrated into society after release.

Perhaps the biggest applause of the night came when he discussed ethics, and lobbying and pension reform, two areas that he said have led to an erosion of public trust in government.

“The rules must be tightened so that abuses are eliminated and special benefits for a select few are removed,” Patrick said. “Only then can we restore the public’s confidence in the system.”

The governor made no mention of new taxes, which has been a hot topic on Beacon Hill in recent weeks, specifically an increase in the gas tax to help pay for the state’s aging roads and bridges.

The overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature embraced his speech, while some Republicans called it short on details and high on rhetoric.

Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, applauded Patrick’s focus on ethics and municipal reforms, and said the Legislature should have passed the Municipal Partnership Act last year.

Newly elected Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said he took away a commitment from the governor to push for broad reforms.

“I will definitely be leading the fight for ethics reform and support the governor’s proposal,” Eldridge said. “We’re not going to give up on progress.”

Patrick’s speech came days before the governor will travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in Tuesday’s inauguration ceremonies for his friend, President-elect Barack Obama. The governor has been working with the Obama administration over the past few weeks to craft a significant economic-stimulus package that he said will bring jobs back to Massachusetts.

“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.”