STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 3, 2012….Gov. Deval Patrick defended President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy on Tuesday morning, blaming a “sclerosis” in Congress for impeding the president’s ability to make the type of investments that have been successful in Massachusetts.
Describing his administration’s three-legged stool for economic development – education, innovation and infrastructure – Patrick pointed to 23,000 jobs created in the first two months of 2012 and growth in the biotechnology and clean energy sectors as proof that his strategy is paying off.
Patrick remains bullish about the Massachusetts economy’s strengths, despite recent federal data showing sluggish Bay State job and economic growth last year and reports of soft levels of confidence among employers.
In a speech to regional business leaders, the governor’s remarks and the questions that followed took on a national flavor as Patrick played the role of national co-chair for Obama’s reelection campaign, hyping the economic development strategies the two men share.
“We have been fortunate here to have legislative partners willing to give us the tools we ask for to deliver on that strategy, not only on the first asking, but eventually and more often than not they give us the tools we ask for. The president has not always been so fortunate. He’s been asked to fight the recession effectively with one hand tied behind his back,” Patrick said.
While critics of a stimulus law say it may have worsened the nation’s fiscal problems, the governor said 90,000 people in Massachusetts can directly attribute their paycheck to Obama’s stimulus bill that made it possible for the state to proceed with projects such as the accelerated bridge repair program.
“This notion that all we have to do is cut taxes, cut government, crush unions and wait and everything will be well, which we hear a lot at the national level, that’s a dumb idea and failed strategy historically and we have shown taken a different approach is smarter and more successful,” Patrick said.
Asked about the 2012 election, Patrick called former Gov. Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, a “gentleman,” but questioned his beliefs.
“I’m not sure he necessarily believes all that he is saying. I know the president believes what he says. When he talks about the (Rep. Paul) Ryan budget as a deeply pessimistic vision of the future, he means it and he’s right,” Patrick said.
Using the failure of Congress to agree to a long-term reauthorization of federal transportation funding as an example of the partisanship that has divided Washington with implications for Massachusetts, Patrick said Congress is “kicking the can down the road instead of making the tough calls and the serious investments that we know are necessary to sustain our growth into the future.”
“A small but emboldened group in Washington is holding that up. They are more committed to defeating the president, it seems, even if it requires driving the economy over a cliff, than winning the future. And so as you work to advance our regional interests in D.C., I hope you’ll be willing to call that out and make it clear that subversion is unacceptable,” Patrick said.
While Patrick knocked Congress for delaying major decisions, a pair of long-burning issues at the state capitol still awaits solutions and action – a health care payment reform and cost control bill and legislation addressing major gaps in the state’s transportation system funding.
Though he said it was unlikely the state would see certainty from Congress on federal spending levels counted on by the state to fund health care, transportation construction and other initiatives, he predicted that an Obama victory in November could go a long way toward clearing the logjam in Congress by demonstrating that the American people want both parties to come together to find solutions.
“If the president wins, and I think he will and I think he should, then a I think a lot of sclerosis in the Congress goes away, even if the personnel doesn’t,” Patrick said.
Patrick spoke to Tuesday to the New England Council, a business trade group, for the first time since 2009, before his re-election. He touched on investments in life sciences, infrastructure and education, including his new initiative to centralize control of the community college system to improve job training.
Asked what he might do differently if he had the chance, Patrick said, “Differently, or yet to do?” When the questioner specified the former, Patrick replied, “Yeah, I’m going to talk about yet to do. Why look back?” before pivoting to the need to address long-term transportation funding.
Though he said he had his “head handed to him” in 2009 when he proposed a gas tax hike, he said the available revenue to support statewide transportation is not sufficient to pay for a “21st century” transportation system.
With the MBTA board scheduled to vote on a plan Wednesday that includes a 23 percent fare increase and some service reductions to close a $159 million budget gap, Patrick said he predicted the financial problems three years ago when he proposed new revenues.
“We’ve got to come back to that. We have to come back to that for a whole host of reasons. But Big Dig debt has never been dealt with and is squeezing our ability to do a bunch of other things we need to do to sustain the economy and quality of life here,” Patrick said, later suggesting that those in the audience could be helpful in providing “air cover” for political leaders to discuss often unpopular revenue options.
After the event, Patrick said absorbing the Big Dig debt into the state budget to take pressure off the T would be difficult. “There are all kinds of different elements of a solve. I don’t want to commit to any one. It’s probably going to be a combination of things, but that one’s not so easy. That has budget implications as well,” he said.
Asked whether state policymakers could be pinned by the same criticism he laid Congress for delaying decisions on how to close a gaping transportation funding deficit identified in 2007 by an independent commission, Patrick said the comparison was not fair.
“No, that’s actually not the case,” Patrick said. “The doubling of the infrastructure investment is about dealing with so much of our deferred maintenance and necessary projects but we can only do so much without a long term fix. That’s why I proposed the gas tax a few years ago. That was not successful. I think the public is ready to come around to a serious conversation about a long-term fix.”
Patrick said he was “heartened” by House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s recent commitment to take up the transportation funding issue early next year.
On the Supreme Court’s consideration of the national health care mandate modeled after Massachusetts, Patrick reiterated his belief that if the court follows precedent the law will be upheld. The governor, however, said that despite the grounding in state law of the mandate that all residents purchase health care, he was uncertain how the court’s decision would play out in Massachusetts.
“It’s possible the Supreme Court could be so broad in their opinion that it could have an effect on us. I just don’t know,” he said.
He chalked it up to “marketing” that Massachusetts residents strongly support the state health care law, but are evenly split on polls on the national mandate.