Friday, July 25, 2008

I really want to like him. I want him to succeed. My concern, though, is that Deval Patrick may be a one-term governor at best and that he won't be able to accomplish what he set out to do – a energization of the Massachusetts electorate and starting up new programs and reforms that would position Massachusetts as a leader for a new century.

The problem is that too much of the time what I see is politics as usual and that is due in part to Patrick's inexperience and to the you-can't-touch-us attitude of the Legislature.

Patrick was in Holyoke recently with a "town meeting" and what I really wanted to do was to say to him, "Listen, putting casino money into your budget when we don't even have the means to collect it was the worse thing you could do to your crumbling credibility."

The gov gave his enemies a loaded gun, cocked it, pointed it to his head and said "Shoot!" with that move.

What made his town meeting a bit of a joke were the announcements that as many people as possible would get a chance to speak and then cutting it off after less than an hour with only about eight questions posed.

There were some quite irritated people, especially in light of the recent budget cuts that affected many in the audience.

I think Patrick is a smart guy, but he needs to get better advisors. And residents need to question their legislators more. Term limits are definitely in order for reps and senators to try to clear out some of the problems we have. Service in the Gneral Court is a calling not a career.

HOLYOKE Considering the cuts Gov. Deval Patrick has made in line items that affect Western Massachusetts one might think his reception in Holyoke on Thursday night at a town meeting would be cool at best.

If he noticed the signs held by young teens that asked him to restore the funding to Girls Inc, for their teen center, he would have known that not everyone was happy with him.

Funding to Holyoke Medical Center, Springfield Technical Community College, Holyoke Community College (HMC), and The Open Pantry were among the earmarks that Patrick eliminated from the version of the budget passed by the House and Senate.

Officials from at least several of those organizations were in attendance.

And yet, Patrick didn't backtrack from any of the cuts he made. He told Reminder Publications in a press availability after the meeting "if I had an ATM with an unlimited account I would have brought it."

He emphasized that he is trying to be "prudent."

A report issued last week by Revenue Commissioner Navjeet K. Bal said "preliminary revenue collections for fiscal year 2008 were $20.888 billion, an increase of $1.152 billion or 5.8 percent over fiscal 2007 collections. The total is $663million above the fiscal 2008 estimate of $20.225 billion."

However Bal noted, "FY2008 was a record year for revenue collections, but the driving elements of that record year income tax paid on capital gains, dividends and interest, settlement of some large tax cases, and strong withholding tax collections will likely not occur again in FY2009."

Both Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno have told this reporter they have been told to expect reduced state aid for FY10.

The over-flow crowd of several hundred people proved to be a cordial and sometimes responsive audience for the governor, although pointed questions about funding were rewarded with applause.

Patrick spent less than an hour answering questions from the audience and then talked one-on-one with many people.

Before the event started, Sarah Dunton who directs the youth services at Girls Inc. explained the center lost $50,000 in state funding which outs the teen center that serves 1,000 at-risk young women a year.

"We'll have to do some scrambling," she said to find a new source for the funding.

She added the organization has spoken to State Sen. Michael Knapik and State Rep. Michael Kane.

Kane introduced Patrick stating the governor has done "some fantastic work in the Statehouse in Boston." He used the energy and the biotech bills as examples.

Patrick admitted in a short introductory speech that the governorship is a "wild job."

Holyoke Medical Center

Michael Zwirko, vice president of HMC, told Patrick the cut he made to the medical center was to pay for recruitment and training of nurses and other professionals. He said HMC serves some of the poorest patients in the state and recruitment of health professionals can be difficult.

Zwirko questioned Patrick on the fairness of the current way hospitals in the state are funded and what plans does the governor have to make funding more equitable.

"We get the short end of the stick," Zwirko said.

Patrick said that while "I appreciate what you do at Holyoke Medical Center I have to push back respectfully."

"Everybody took a hit because the times are what they are," he added.

Patrick said that HMC has received large amounts of state aid in the past and that Children's Hospital in Boston was cut by $10 million. HMC's cut was $2 million.

The governor said his was "not a happy decision" when it came to the hospital cuts and that his administration would be looking at other ways to assist HMC.

"I'm not walking away from Holyoke Medical Center," he said.

Contacted the following morning, Hank Porten, HMC's president and CEO, explained the funding issue at the hospital is not just about the $2 million cut from the budget but about the larger issue of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement schedules and rates.

Porten said that two Boston-area hospitals did get the money they needed and asked, "Where's the parity? Why is Boston's poor better than Holyoke's poor?"

He said he didn't begrudge the two institutions the money but noted that this kind of uneven funding has "been going on for a long time."

Because HMC has been under-funded for years, it's difficult to replace capital and equipment, he explained. What has enabled to allow the medical center to continue through 19 years of under-funding is instituting greater efficiencies, he added.

"We've been bleeding to death from a thousand paper cuts," he said.

Porten called for a new state system for hospital funding.

Requests from the audience

Patrick had staff members throughout the audience taking down inquiries and issues from people who had concerns but did not wish to voice them.

A teacher from Springfield questioned Patrick on the effectiveness of special education advocacy Patrick offered to set up a meeting with the new Secretary of Education Paul Reville while another woman brought up issues she had with the Department of Social Services.

Joseph Farrick Sr. of Easthampton said, "It's nice to know the governor's office knows the state line doesn't end at Worcester." A Vietnam War veteran, he then asked Patrick why he couldn't buy a second Purple Heart plate for his car. He then said vets should get waivers for fees at state parks and that law enforcement officials should be trained to recognize post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with the influx of service men and women coming from war zones.

Patrick said, "You'll get your license."

He then said that there has been training for police officers to recognize PTSD but acknowledged there is a need for more training.

Former State Rep. Francis Rodgers of Holyoke asked for state help in building a new senior center.

"We can look at it," Patrick responded. "I don't know where we are in supporting it."

Edith Jennings-Cope, director of youth ministries of the United Congregational Church, asked the governor what the state can do in assisting local programs to help teens, especially teens who find themselves homeless at age 16 and not eligible for help from DSS.

"Not all of it" was Patrick's answer. He added the increase for the homeless line item was the largest in the budget and the rules are changing concerning teen homelessness.

He said that his School Readiness Project, which would radically change the way the state looks at education, would provide a "seamless" day by lengthening the school day, providing activities until parents are back from work, and use school buildings and resources to their fullest.

He said the state needs to connect existing programs with schools and non-profit groups to bring these changes about.

"It's a long term thing," he said.

Open Pantry

Open Pantry Executive Director Kevin Noonan attended the meeting and spoke briefly with Patrick after the town meeting. Noonan's organization was cut over $500,000 and he had been hoping the earmark would stand.

Noonan told the governor he was surprised that someone who alternated sleeping on the floor because his family couldn't afford enough beds would have made that cut.

Noonan said that he laid off two employees last week and reduced the hours of the food pantry to Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The pantry is closed on Wednesdays.

In a press release sent out July 18, Noonan also announced there will be cutbacks at the Loaves and Fishes meal program as well, although the details have not been shared.

What's next?

State Rep. Michael Kane said that he has heard from every organization affected by a cut earmark and that he has sent a letter to the House leadership to request a meeting with House Speaker Sal DiMasi in the hopes of having an override vote.

Kane explained that what the governor vetoed returned the Legislature's budget back to a document similar to the one he had submitted to them.

Kane said that based on the revenue report there are "no really big alarms" for changes in capital gains that could affect the current fiscal picture.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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