Governor Deval Patrick used his last State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday night to call for a higher minimum wage, but focused more on burnishing his accomplishments over the last seven years than on laying out a forceful agenda for his final 11 months in office.
In a speech that often sounded more like a valedictory address than a call to action, Patrick argued that his strategy of spending on infrastructure, innovation, and education had helped make the state a leader in student achievement, health care, and other areas.
Using the refrain, “Let’s keep going,” he exhorted lawmakers to focus on those who have not benefited from the rising stock market or the growing economy, which he said is booming in some quarters, but leaving too many behind.
“For too many of our neighbors, the American Dream is in trouble,” Patrick declared in the 30-minute speech, which was carried live on television and delivered to a House chamber packed with lawmakers and state officials. “And I refuse to accept that their dream is out of reach. Government cannot deliver that all on its own, but government — we here tonight in this chamber — have a solemn duty to help all our people help themselves.”
He drew the loudest applause when he challenged businesses to support an increase in the state minimum wage, an idea that President Obama echoed an hour later in his State of the Union address and that has energized the Democratic base nationwide.
Patrick did not offer specifics about such an increase, but bluntly challenged opponents of a higher wage to “consider whether you could live on it.”
The rate is currently $8 an hour in Massachusetts. The state Senate has approved a bill that would raise it to $11 by 2016, which would give the state the highest wage floor in the nation.
Patrick also urged his allies in organized labor to support changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system, which businesses have complained is among the costliest in the nation.
“I submit that we can have a system that encourages hiring, not one that raises even a second thought about it,” Patrick said. He offered no details.
Remarkable for such speeches, Patrick’s lacked any major new initiatives, a fact that could deepen the perception on Beacon Hill that his political powers have diminished, with less than a year left in office. The big legislative items he embraced, involving the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, have been championed by House and Senate leaders, who have vowed to pass them this year, without Patrick’s prodding.
The other items he discussed, such as broadening early education, are part of Patrick’s budget, which is expected to undergo substantial changes when it is rewritten by lawmakers in the coming months.
The lack of a wish list is partly a reflection of scheduling: The governor has only six months left to push bills before lawmakers conclude formal business in July. In less than a year, he will take the traditional “long walk” through the rarely used front doors of the the State House, leaving Beacon Hill on the final day of his term.
It also reflects a stark political reality. A spate of management problems at the Department of Children and Families, the state drug lab, and the Health Connector website have threatened to overshadow his agenda.
In his speech Tuesday, which was postponed a week because of the snowstorm last Tuesday, Patrick vowed to strengthen DCF and to fix the troubled website. “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,” he said. “Now, as in the past, we will do it again.”
For much of his address, Patrick seemed to have an eye on history, as he sought to frame his record in his own terms. He recalled facing unforeseen challenges, from a global economic collapse to a tornado, and a terrorist attack. He unspooled long lists of his accomplishments, from cutting regulations to extending the right to organize to personal care attendants.
In the most emotional moment of his speech, he paid tribute to the first responders and ordinary citizens who responded to the Boston Marathon bombings last April, calling them the “firm and big-hearted, pragmatic, and compassionate people I know the people of Massachusetts to be.” One of those responders, MBTA Transit Officer Richard Donohue, who was injured in the gunbattle in Watertown, was in the audience for the speech, and delivered the pledge of allegiance before it.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray said they were pleased to hear the governor recall how much had been accomplished in the past seven years.
“Quite frankly, I know I turned to the speaker at one point, and we both looked at each other as he listed the things off — we’ve accomplished a lot, a lot in seven years together, and the Commonwealth is in a much better place than when we found it,” Murray said in an interview after the speech. She noted that the Senate had already passed a bill to raise the minimum wage and said the chamber would be taking up a separate bill to overhaul unemployment insurance “very shortly.”
Following the speech, DeLeo reiterated his commitment to pass a higher minimum wage, but said he wants to make sure it is accompanied by unemployment insurance changes that he said will help keep the business climate competitive. “We’ve been talking about addressing UI for years and years and years,” DeLeo said. “And I think it’s about time we do that.”
Republicans took a much dimmer view of Patrick’s speech. Senate Republican leader Bruce E. Tarr argued that Patrick’s push for a higher minimum wage would discourage hiring, harming the struggling workers the governor says he wants to help.
“It’s nice to have flowery aspirations,” Tarr said, “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.”
House Republican leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. called the speech “underwhelming.” He said it was particularly ironic that Patrick urged local officials to hold down property taxes. Jones pointed out that Patrick had promised to cut that tax during his first campaign in 2006, but never delivered on the pledge.