It is a ritual carefully timed to allow the governor to deliver gilded rhetoric directly to lawmakers and the public before he goes about the drier business of announcing his annual budget. But Tuesday’s snowstorm upended those plans and deprived Governor Deval Patrick of his last chance to outline his priorities and fend off the perception that he is a lame duck before he releases his final budget Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Patrick postponed his final State of the Commonwealth speech four hours before he was set to deliver it, saying it would not be safe for hundreds of lawmakers and dignitaries to drive to and from the State House during a major snowstorm.
At a hastily convened State House press conference, a tieless Patrick said the storm was, “unfortunately, forecast to be quite a bit stronger and faster than originally forecast” and could dump 12 to 14 inches of snow across the state.
Patrick will probably appear at a budget rollout Wednesday, but such events lack the stagecraft and drama that accompany formal addresses in the House chamber and will not be televised as widely.
Unlike the release of the budget, an operating blueprint written in the abstruse language of line items, the State of the Commonwealth speech is the chief executive’s annual opportunity to seize the bully pulpit and announce the year’s priorities.
This year’s speech acquired increased importance because it is the last of Patrick’s two terms, and he faces a spate of government controversies and a spreading perception that his political power has diminished.
While the speech’s date can be moved, Patrick cannot postpone the budget release because the state Constitution requires governors to unveil their spending plan within three weeks of the convening of the Legislature. This year that date falls on Jan. 22.
The governor is hoping to deliver his speech later this week, but must coordinate the date with legislative leaders because the House chamber, the traditional venue for the address, “is their real estate.”
Patrick downplayed the ramifications of having to give the speech after releasing his budget plan, arguing that it will only affect “the tenses of some of the verbs” in his speech.
“We’ll be able to do it in another day or two,” Patrick said. “It’ll give me an opportunity to sharpen or tighten the language.”
But Jason Kauppi, a communications strategist who worked in both the Cellucci and Swift administrations, said the storm could rob Patrick of an important political moment.
“If this is a budget that he wants to get passed, it’s a missed opportunity to talk to lawmakers directly and get them on board, a missed opportunity to appear with the Senate president and House speaker, to show some solidarity there,” Kauppi said Tuesday. “He’s probably going to have to make it up on the back end.”
Still, Kauppi said, legislators would tell you it does not really matter, they are going to pass the budget they want to pass.
David Falcone, a Denterlein Public Relations executive who worked for years as Senate President Therese Murray’s communications director, said the inverted schedule could play in Patrick’s favor.
“He’ll have the opportunity now to respond in a prime-time speech to any criticism or reports that are already out there,” Falcone said, “so that’s a plus.”
Despite its calendar slot in prime blizzard season, the speech has historically proven resistant to nature’s wrath. In 2008, Patrick postponed the address by a day due to a “scheduling conflict,” but did so nearly two weeks in advance, according to State House News Service.
Several State House veterans could not recall any governor postponing the speech on such short notice.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t,” said Robert Q. Crane, who served in the House from 1957 to 1964 and was the state treasurer from 1964 until 1991. “I think I would remember if it were canceled for snow or any reason.
“But I think it’s the right call,” Crane added. “You put a lot of people in danger.”
Former governor Michael S. Dukakis said, “I’m sure it might have happened at some point in the history of the Commonwealth, but I don’t remember it happening during my own political career.”
“Fortunately, the blizzard of ‘78 waited until February,” Dukakis, who joined the House in 1963, wrote in an e-mail.Joshua Miller of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson. Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.oSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.