Patrick: Turn anger in "positive direction"

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 21, 2010…...Addressing a state shaken up by an electoral stunner and drained by sustained economic woes, Gov. Deval Patrick acknowledged missteps but vowed to stay focused on struggling citizens’ needs, using his annual speech to lay out a limited policy agenda for the final 11 months of his term.

Describing himself as “unsatisfied” and “determined,” Patrick called for residents to convert their dissatisfaction into progress.

“Be angry, but channel it in a positive direction,” Patrick said, in a clear nod to Tuesday’s Senate election, where Republican Sen. Scott Brown upset Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley. “It's easy to be against things. It takes tough-mindedness and political courage to be for something.”

At Patrick’s urging, the chamber delivered a standing ovation to the candidates in Tuesday’s Senate election, including Coakley, seated near the rostrum. Auditor Joseph DeNucci raised her hand in a victory gesture.

Acknowledging he had brought hardships upon his own administration, Patrick, who has watched his approval ratings slide, leaned heavily on themes of perseverance and did not unfurl any significant policy changes. He said he would maintain funding for a budget account that provides key education aid to cities and towns in the fiscal 2011 budget he is expected to file next week.

Patrick said he wanted to consolidate state government agencies and reduce property taxes, a campaign promise from 2006 that has gone unfulfilled, lower health insurance costs and enact criminal justice policy changes.

The governor’s speech arrives in an uproarious political climate and amid bad economic news, Brown’s long-shot victory in Tuesday’s special Senate election driving panic into Democrats both here and nationally, and data out Thursday showing a leap in the state’s unemployment rate. Patrick aides pointed out Thursday afternoon that the jobless rate was still below the national average.

Republicans faulted Patrick for not laying out an economic recovery strategy, criticizing his speech as empty rhetoric.

House Minority Leader Bradley Jones said, “No plan announced at all, no details about how he’s going to get there, no specifics. No amount of hope or happy talk in tonight’s speech is going to help you deal with the real problems that we face, either fiscally or beyond.”

Legislative Democrats cheered the speech, holding off on a sometimes hostile tone between the Legislature and Executive Branch to say Patrick had found the right note.

“I thought the governor hit it on the head,” said Speaker Robert DeLeo.

“I think he put into perspective all that was done this past year – in particular the way that the economic conditions were handled,” DeLeo said.

“I think it’s difficult when you have, what, a $3 billion shortfall to talk about new programs, and I think that’s a catch the governor has,” said Rep. Theodore Speliotis (D-Danvers). “Any incumbent in office at this time, it’s not a good time to go into a reelection cycle. But I think he handled it well.”

Patrick’s gubernatorial rivals said the address lacked evidence of an economic recovery strategy.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything really new or bold as far as how we’re going to address this economic crisis we’re in,” said Treasurer Timothy Cahill, running against Patrick as a political independent. “And I was hoping and expected a more focused speech on the economy, given the unemployment numbers that came in today.”

“I think the focus has to be less on how we’re going to manage government spending and [more on] how we’re going to address people’s anger and anxiety about the economy,” said Cahill, who did not attend the speech because, he said, he had two campaign-related fundraisers previously scheduled.

Jones challenged Patrick over his claim of balanced budgets, saying, “I’m surprised you could even try to say that with a straight face.”

Budget writers have consistently overestimated revenues and relied heavily on non-recurring revenues like federal aid and state reserves to fill gaps the last two fiscal years, and likely will again for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Jones pointed to empty seats in the House Chamber, calling it “sparse attendance.”

“That’s a reflection of, I think, the governor’s standing,” Jones said.

Some of the policy intentions Patrick laid out face mixed odds. Making fundamental changes to the state’s criminal record system and sentencing guidelines, for instance, faces little appetite in the evolving political atmosphere, legislative Democrats said after the speech. Lawmakers say local aid, a key funding stream cities and towns use to offset property taxes, could also go under the knife further next fiscal year.

“These are tough issues, I know,” Patrick said, according to a written copy of his remarks. “But by now you should know, my friends, not to doubt my resolve or my determination. I hear the detractors who fiercely or passively defend the status quo. I hear the challengers pressing to return to old, familiar ways, even policies that failed us in the past. But I also hear a public deeply frustrated with the pace of change, who need a little help from us right now so they can help themselves.”

The governor is facing a strong field of challenges, including Cahill, and Republicans Charles Baker and Christy Mihos. In the speech, he gives a preemptive defense of his administration’s performance, accepting some blame and pointing to inherited mistakes and broader economic problems.

“Our task was made harder by bumps along the road – some of my own making, others left behind by predecessors, but most the result of a global economic collapse that no one foresaw and few living have ever experienced,” Patrick said, according to the text.

“There are so many people who say he’s not running, that it was nice to see him animated and engaged,” said Rep. Daniel Bosley, a North Adams Democrat. “I think this’ll probably put those rumors to rest.”

Claiming success on several initiatives by “making it personal,” Patrick touted the state’s reversal of population trends, with more people moving in than out, rising business confidence and home sales, a stable credit rating, high test scores in public schools, and near-universal health insurance coverage.

The speech did not address expanded gambling, likely one of the largest policy debates of the year.

After the speech, Patrick headed to a house party in Springfield organized by his political committee.