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Gov. Deval Patrick's final State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday night was light on policy. But it was a forceful speech in its own way.
Patrick, entering his final year in office, took a stab at his own legacy — speaking of balanced budgets, land conserved and a booming tech sector.
“Today, Massachusetts is first in the nation in student achievement, in health care coverage, in economic competitiveness, in entrepreneurial activity, in venture funding, in energy efficiency and in veterans' services,” he said.
But the governor also tapped into a central theme in American politics — a theme President Obama would sound in his State of the Union address a couple of hours later: the problem of inequality.
Not everyone, Patrick said, has shared in the state's prosperity.
And the governor, who grew up poor on the South Side of Chicago, spoke of the issue in personal terms.
“Because there are children here in our own commonwealth tonight whose future is still defined by the ZIP code of their birth,” he said. “I was once one of those kids. And for all my blessings, I have not forgotten.”
Last year, the governor made a big policy push in his State of the Commonwealth speech, calling for $1.9 billion in new taxes to fund major investments in education and transportation.
The Legislature passed a much smaller package, totaling $500 million. And this year's budget reflects the governor's scaled-back ambitions.
Still, Patrick issued a broad call for assisting those struggling to make ends meet.
And the governor got his only standing ovation when he called for a hike in the state's minimum wage — and a few murmurs when he issued a challenge to opponents.
“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,” he said.
The governor did briefly acknowledge a couple of the controversies that have dogged the administration in recent months.
The state's health care website, known as the Connector, has faltered. And the Department of Children and Families (DCF) lost track of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy now presumed dead.
“It's inexcusable to lose any child we are charged with protecting,” Patrick said. “And it's frustrating to offer a public convenience that is anything but convenient. Time after time, when problems arise, we have kept our wits about us, gathered the facts soberly and thoughtfully, and stepped up to find solutions, not just fault. Now, as in the past, we will do it again.”
But if Patrick won applause in the chamber, there are some in the Legislature concerned that the administration's probe of DCF may not go deep enough.
“I think we all have to remember that there was a child who died here,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo said after the speech. “I think we have to look from top to bottom in terms of the operation of DCF.”
There is also a realization that Patrick's budget is in for some serious revision in the Legislature.
That explains why former state Rep. Marty Walsh, now mayor of Boston, did not seem too concerned about a spending blueprint that provides no new aid to cities and towns.
“I've been — I was a state rep for 16.5 years,” Walsh said. “I know that's the first — the first round of it, so I'm not worried. I'll wait for round two and three to come out.”
A reminder that however eloquent the governor's speech — whatever nostalgia there might be about his tenure — he's still got another tough year of governing ahead of him.
Patrick acknowledged as much at the close of his speech.
“So now is no time for valedictories,” he said. “We have work to do. Let's get to it.”
The question now is whether lawmakers will work with this popular, but lame-duck governor in his final year — or whether they will look to the future.
As Patrick left the House chamber Tuesday night, shaking hands as he went, one of the people vying to succeed him, Attorney General Martha Coakley, was just a few steps behind.
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