By Matt Murphy and Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick on Tuesday night used his final State of the Commonwealth address to argue for the legacy of progress he has left behind in Massachusetts over his seven years in office and to challenge those outside Beacon Hill – labor, business and municipalities – to partner on key goals over the next year to improve the economy and lift the working class.
“I know there is unfinished business. But I also know that we are a more prosperous, more promising and more just Commonwealth for more people today,” Patrick said. “I know that Massachusetts is back in the leadership business, and that the state of our Commonwealth is strong.”
In a 30-minute speech from the rostrum of the House chamber, Patrick reflected on the challenges the state has overcome since he took office, including a global recession, to become what he described as a leader in education, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, and responsible budgeting.
For video of Patrick’s complete address, go to http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-01-28sotc/
For House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s response to the speech, go to http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-01-28leaders/
For House Minority Leader Brad Jones and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr’s response, go to http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-01-28gop/
Riding approval ratings north of 50 percent despite recent controversies involving the state’s health insurance website and child protection agency, Patrick tried in his speech to balance his own reflections on his tenure while also appearing not to be letting up on the gas.
Not everyone in the chamber agreed with the governor’s assessment of the state.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones said the intrinsic qualities of Massachusetts, such as its quality colleges and universities, means it will be strong, but he said there is room for improvement.
“I think he tried to do a good job picking at some statistics,” Jones told the News Service. “I agree the Commonwealth is strong; I just don’t think it’s as strong as it could be or should be.”
MBTA Police Officer Richard Donohue, who was injured in the post-marathon bombing shootout in Watertown, led the Pledge of Allegiance before the speech. The night started a bit awkwardly after Patrick made his entrance to the House chamber to thunderous applause, but arrived on the rostrum several minutes early for the live telecast after shaking hands with those who staked out positions along the aisle – including AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman and his brother Warren Tolman, a candidate for attorney general.
When the speech did begin, he repeatedly thanked legislators for their partnership, while also insisting there is more to do as he appealed to the many of the interest groups outside of the State House who exert considerable influence over the process inside.
He challenged cities and towns to “hold the line on local property taxes,” which had been a pledge of his 2006 campaign, to make permitting quicker and more predictable, and to work with lawmakers to fix the retiree health care system to make it “fair and fiscally sustainable.”
He challenged labor to help reform the unemployment insurance system to encourage hiring of the long-term unemployed and make it easier to start a business. And he challenged the business community to hire.
“Hire somebody,” Patrick said, shortly before President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address called on employers to raise employee wages.
“I thought it was funny when he told our cities and towns that they needed to hold the line on property taxes. That was a big campaign pledge and he hasn’t done much on that issue. So, I thought it was an underwhelming speech,” Jones said.
Easily the strongest applause of the night, however, came when he urged all of those groups to come together to raise the state’s $8 an hour minimum wage. Though Senate leaders have largely driven the minimum wage issue and Patrick has yet to commit to a number, the governor said raising the wage would bring “a little relief to the working poor” who will turn around and spend that money back into the economy.
“To those who are reluctant to raise the minimum wage, I ask only that before you resolve to oppose it, consider whether you could live on it,” Patrick said, a line that some House Democrats said they interpreted as directed at them.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said that after cutting through the governor’s lofty rhetoric there were concerns about economic competitiveness.
“By increasing the minimum wage to one of the highest in the nation, we’re going to undermine the very competitiveness for the folks that he talked about us needing to help,” Tarr told reporters immediately after the speech. Mentioning the cost of energy and health care and what he said is the “need” to reform the unemployment system, Tarr said, “It’s nice to have flowery aspirations, but those don’t help you very much if you don’t have a job and your employer won’t hire you because we made it tougher to do so.”
Jones said retirement benefits, an issue Patrick pushed last January and mentioned in his speech Tuesday, should come up for debate, and said he would be open to an increase in the minimum wage if it was coupled with other reforms.”The details are key. Am I open to some increase in the minimum wage? If it’s coupled with some beneficial changes and other things . . . absolutely I’m open to that,” Jones said. About other post-employment benefits, Jones said, “Certainly members of my caucus are very game for having a discussion about that. Absolutely. Unfortunately we don’t control the agenda about putting something on the floor.”
Senate President Therese Murray appreciated the focus on the minimum wage. “It was a great speech,” said Murray, adding that Patrick’s remarks helped remind her of all the positive things they’ve accomplished as partners.
With Murray standing beside him after the speech, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said, “I think the governor’s had a good story to tell. I think the Senate has a good story to tell. I think the House has a good story to tell in terms of what we’ve done in the past seven years and we’re going to continue that in the eighth year and the governor outlined that very well.”
Asked about the minimum wage, which the Senate has already voted for, Murray playfully laughed and gave the speaker rabbit ears. “As I said before, I’m going to raise the minimum wage. The only issue I’m also going to put in is some discussion relative to UI, which the governor also referred to in his speech,” DeLeo said, as Murray nodded beside him.
Even as the Senate has proposed to give Massachusetts the highest minimum wage in the country at $11 an hour after three years, other states are considering increases as well. In Washington, for example, Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, proposed an increase to its nation-leading $9.32 minimum wage of $1.50 to $2.50, while Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said he would push to raise his state wage to $10.10 over two years.
“I think the House has always taken a more cautious approach on these two items, and I think we will continue to. That’s not to say I don’t think we’re going to do something. I certainly think we’re going do something on the minimum wage, but we want to make sure it’s a sustainable workable piece of legislation,” House Majority Leader Ron Mariano said.
Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, called it an “end-of-an-era speech” from the governor. “He sort of rehashed his accomplishments, a lot of which we can all be proud of, and gave us a couple things we can look forward to in the future,” Mariano said.
Despite the bumpy relationship with the governor over the past year, which started with Patrick’s State of the Commonwealth address in 2013 calling for major tax increases, Mariano said House lawmakers are willing to work with Patrick over the next six months.
“We’re up for re-election. It’s in our best interest to work with this guy and get some things done, not only for his legacy but for our own re-election and for the Commonwealth,” Mariano said.
Patrick did urge the Legislature to pass a transportation bond bill, which the House will debate Wednesday, to free up financing for infrastructure projects and expressed confidence in the passage of an election reform bill, but made no mention of welfare reform, compounding pharmacy oversight, sentencing reform or other bond bills pending in the Legislature.
Briefly addressing the Department of Children and Families and the troubled Health Connector website, Patrick pledged to gather the facts “soberly and thoughtfully” and “find solutions, not just fault.”
Finally, Patrick challenged residents to be engaged, to learn about candidates running for office, to vote and volunteer, and to even run for office themselves, sending a murmur through the ranks of the Legislature who are beginning to worry about their own re-elections.
“If you want a better Commonwealth, don’t just sit on the sidelines and complain. Because in a strong community, we have a stake in each other’s dreams and struggles, as well as our own,” Patrick said.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said Patrick did a “great job” framing the accomplishments of the last seven years. Walsh said the city of Boston was looking on its own at the city’s pension system and retiree health benefits, and remains confident that local aid will come in higher than the governor proposed in his fiscal 2015 budget. “I’m not worried. I’ll wait for round two and three to come out,” he said.
AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman said he thought the speech was “well thought out, well delivered and pretty passionate.” You could see he was emotional knowing it was his last address,” Tolman said.
The union leader and former senator also said labor is willing to compromise on unemployment insurance
“It’s very clear we have to work together in state government. To what reforms we’re talking is unclear, but by all means we’re willing to work for reasonable reforms, not reforms that are adverse to those who need the services most,” Tolman said.