With 'insider cred,' Patrick looks back on three sessions, ahead to his last

Michael Norton and Matt Murphy, State House News Service
Aug. 7, 2012

To hear Gov. Deval Patrick tell it, he’ll spend his last two-plus years in office marketing Massachusetts around the world, using his self-proclaimed “insider cred” to hammer out transportation financing and sentencing laws, and implementing sweeping health care cost control and economic development laws he signed this week.

While there will surely be more on his plate, Patrick, in a 30-minute interview in his office Monday with the News Service, spoke again about finishing out his second four-year term and danced around the idea of new or higher taxes to solve an estimated $30 billion shortfall in transportation system funding.

Hours after signing his top priority, a sweeping health care cost control and payment reform bill, Patrick said there will be a “big lift” over the next 90 days, and beyond, to implement the law. “I think everybody is focused on the importance of getting this right and getting the savings without breaking a system which in many respects is showing much more innovation today that it has in a long, long time,” Patrick said, calling the projected $200 billion in savings over the next 15 years “conservatively estimated.”

Patrick said his five-plus years on the job have taught him about working with the Legislature, a dynamic he described as “not Democrat and Republican, as I experience it. It’s insider-outsider.” He said, “The most important thing is to be clear about the principles I’m looking for, and not sweat the details.”

Patrick is not yet talking legacy, but he is keenly aware that his time in office is running short. With that comes the consideration of making sure his successes, including those on the health care front, carry forward beyond 2014 when he says he plans to find work in the private sector.

“Institutionalizing that - which is more and more on my mind - how to make the good things we’re doing last after I leave, this was a big step in that direction,” Patrick said.

During his nearly six years in office, Patrick and legislative leaders have worked together to raise several taxes and implement a smaller number of tax reductions. But since 2009, when the sales tax was boosted to 6.25 percent from 5 percent, legislative leaders have sworn off additional tax hikes.

Asked how he could get to a transportation financing solution without raising taxes, Patrick said, “I don’t know what the answer is to that. I mean it’s something, right? It’s some kind of thing. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I don’t know what it is.”

Asked if it’s difficult working with legislative leaders who have been less receptive to tax increases than he has, Patrick appeared to attribute their hard line on taxes in recent years to their political aspirations. “I’m not running for anything. Let me leave it at that,” the governor said.

Patrick admitted the transportation funding gap numbers are enormous. “They are large, especially if what you’re looking for is a large fix,” he said. “Now that doesn’t mean a large tax necessarily.”

Officials at the MBTA, Massachusetts Port Authority, and in his own transportation and economic development agencies all have different ideas about how to address the transportation funding dilemma, along with ideas from people outside the building, Patrick said.

“We shouldn’t think about transportation financing as just plugging holes in various parts of the system that have a leak right now. We should think about transportation policy as enabling, or not supporting economic development,” Patrick said.

The governor also said he’s aware that top lawmakers are waiting for him to roll out a proposal first.

“I want to try to distill it all,” he said. “Both the leaders have been clear that we’re going to take up a comprehensive transportation financing plan next year. They’re going to wait for me to propose it. And that’s fine. That goes with the job or ought to. But they’re on record that they’re committed to dealing with this and I’m taking them at their word.”

In 2009, the Legislature opted for a sales tax hike over Patrick’s call for a gas tax hike. Asked why it’s been difficult to come back with another transportation financing plan after the defeat of his 2009 gas tax proposal, Patrick said, “I don’t think it’s that it’s difficult. It’s just that it’s not done. I could roll out the same thing. Had that been enacted we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in.”

Though he said his proposal is “not done yet,” he acknowledged the gas tax battle taught him some lessons about the “political sensitivities” around transportation financing, including the anxiety felt by residents and lawmakers outside of Greater Boston about being denied their fair share.

Patrick contrasted the cooperation he received from the Democrat-controlled Legislature with stalemates between the Republican-controlled House and President Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate. Patrick said the state Legislature has on the whole “given me the tools” he’s requested to advance an agenda built around education, innovation and infrastructure, the same agenda Obama has laid out.

“The president hasn’t been as fortunate from the Congress,” he said. “And to me that is an issue in this election.”

While he’s piled up more than five years of experience bargaining over legislation and describes his relationship with the Legislature as “respectful” and “engaged,” Patrick said he feels he’s still viewed as an outsider. “I think I still get treated as one,” he said.

He added, “I’m not pretending that I don’t have my insider cred now to some extent. I get that. I’m not trying to hold myself out as something I’m not. This isn’t my career and I think an advantage that I have on account of that is I can do the job without thinking about my career. I can just try to get it right and leave something valuable that lasts and I hope that that attitude about governing for the long term and taking a little political risk in the interest of the long term or the greater good is something that lasts.”

Patrick has found receptive partners in the Legislature on many issues, but not all. “It does astonish me how a Democratic Legislature has as much trouble as it does taking modest proposals like these more seriously and giving them more time. I mean one gun a month. How radical is that?” Patrick said.

During the last session, Patrick backed off a proposal to limit gun purchases to one per month in favor of an effort to create three new gun crimes for assault and battery with a firearm, assault with a firearm, and a "felon in possession law" that mirrors federal gun statutes. The proposal to limit gun purchases, at the time, drew the ire of gun owners who felt targeted for crimes they didn't commit.

“I just don’t accept that reasonable limitation on gun ownership strike at the heart of the Second Amendment,” he said.

As for his remaining time in office, Patrick said he expects to be deeply engrossed in implementing the health care law he signed on Monday and enmeshed in administering executive branch job creation strategies and new economic development initiatives in a bill he signed Tuesday morning.

“We’ve got some really strong economic development strategies that we’ve been plugging on,” he said. “There’s a lot to like in the jobs bill that enhances some of that. That’s execution now, so it’s not so much legislation as it is execution and that absolutely has to remain at the top because it drives everything else, absolutely everything else.”

Patrick said he was not prepared to identify one single accomplishment as the defining achievement thus far of his tenure as governor, instead making the case efforts to boost job creation, spur economic development and rein in health spending all dovetail with one another.

“There’s so many things we’ve gotten done that folks said couldn’t be done, and I’m not prepared to identify any one as the most important. They all connect,” Patrick said.

Also on the economic front, Patrick said he’s feeling pressure from the business community to more aggressively market the state internationally to attract new employers and retain existing ones.

While no trips have been confirmed, Patrick said business people are after the administration to forge deeper economic ties in India, South Africa and Russia. He also didn’t rule out a return trip to China to build on ties made there during a trade mission.

“There’s some stuff we should do in Europe before too long and a couple of other places where there’s a real alignment with our own innovation sector. But I’m running out of time so I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to all of those places,” he said.

Patrick said he hopes to sell the state’s economic strengths in a “more sophisticated way.”

“I have visitors from other states and other countries who talk about the number of visits they have had from other governors and they’re out there pitching their state as a good place to do business and to grow and so forth and I like it and I’m pretty good at it actually. But you don’t want to be out there by yourself,” he said. “We have to learn as a commercial community to tell our story a little bit more disciplined . . . with more of a plan. And I want to do some of that.”

Days after the Legislature completed their formal sessions for the year, Patrick said he felt the two-year session was a great success despite not getting quite everything he asked for from the House and Senate.

“They’re not going to say yes to everything I ask for. They’re not supposed to. I’m not going to say yes to everything they do. I’m not supposed to. But it’s a respectful relationship,” Patrick said.

Counted among the accomplishments of the session, Patrick noted the he was able to sign the three main policy objectives he laid out at the start of the year, including “balanced” sentencing law changes, improved community college oversight and coordination, and the capstone health care cost containment bill. Municipal health reforms, increased aid for local school district and funding for his youth violence prevention programs are also sources of pride.

Though Patrick said Massachusetts is probably not done updating its health care laws to solve the problems of access, quality and cost, he said he did not feel boxed into signing the cost containment bill due to the late hour in the session when it was finally delivered to him by the Legislature. “There were no surprises, or few, because we were very involved through the conference committee,” he said.