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Vow to add jobs appears doomed

Patrick's promise is overtaken by national economic downturn

By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / December 18, 2008
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To the many casualties of the national recession, add one more: Governor Deval Patrick's campaign pledge to create 100,000 jobs in his first term.

Nearly halfway through his term, Massachusetts has added just 22,000 jobs. That number will likely dwindle when the state reports November employment figures today, expected by analysts to mark the third consecutive month of losses. Several economic forecasts project the losses will accelerate over the next year, leaving Massachusetts with tens of thousands of fewer jobs by the time the gubernatorial election rolls around in 2010. The state has about 3.3 million payroll jobs.

"In an economic recovery, 100,000 jobs was a modest goal," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan research group in Boston. "In a recession, it's an impossibility."

Patrick's situation demonstrates how the state's elected officials can overreach when they promise to create jobs. Although state policies on taxes, education, and other economic issues can have an impact over the long term, job gains and losses during a gubernatorial administration are subject to national and global economic trends, economists said. State governments don't have the resources to avoid the impact of downtrends.

"Governors take too much credit when the economy is up, and get too much blame when the economy is down," said James Diffley, chief regional economist for IHS Global Insight, a Waltham forecasting firm.

Unlike the federal government, states can't run deficits, so their ability to spend to stimulate the economy is limited, Diffley said. In addition, the benefits of stimulus spending rarely stay entirely in the state. For example, Diffley said, if a state stimulated local auto sales with tax breaks, much of the money would flow to where the cars are made, like Detroit and Japan.

IHS Global Insight projects that when Patrick's term ends in 2010, the state will have 26,000 fewer jobs than it did when he took office in January 2007. Moody's Economy.com of West Chester, Pa., forecasts the state will lose nearly 60,000 in Patrick's first term, and the New England Economic Partnership, a nonprofit forecasting group, projects losses for the same period at nearly 100,000.

If those forecasts prove correct, it could provide an opening for Republicans in the next gubernatorial campaign, particularly in light of Patrick's sharp criticism in 2006 of then-Governor Mitt Romney's job-creation record.

"His leadership on the economy is absolutely going to be an issue," said Barney Keller spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party. "We're going to pound him on it."

Kyle Sullivan, Patrick's spokesman, said the governor remains committed to increasing jobs in Massachusetts. "Though the current national and international financial crisis will make meeting prior targets much more challenging," Sullivan said, "the administration will continue to focus its energy and attention on economic growth opportunities."

Administration officials said Patrick has put in place a variety of policies, including a $1 billion program to enhance the biotechnology and health science sectors, that will promote long-term economic growth. Despite the current downturn, they added, the state's economic foundations are strong. Several national studies, including ones by Babson College, Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, have named Massachusetts as the top state in innovation, entrepreneurial activity, and competitiveness.

In the short term, said state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Daniel O'Connell in a recent interview, the state is well-positioned to capitalize on the massive economic stimulus package expected to be approved by Congress after President-elect Barack Obama takes office. For example, O'Connell said, Obama has called for a major program to develop alternative energy, and Massachusetts has one of the nation's biggest and most advanced alternative energy sectors, employing about 15,000.

A key factor in awarding stimulus funds is likely to be the speed at which projects can be started and jobs created. Yesterday, Patrick said he has formed a task force to identify projects that could qualify for stimulus funding and get them ready to "go in the ground at a moment's notice."

"This mobilization plan will ensure we are ready to do just that - build worthwhile projects, create jobs, and return the Massachusetts economy to prosperity," Patrick said in a statement.

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.

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