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A numbers roadshow

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast yesterday figured to be a skeptical audience for Governor Deval Patrick's first budget, and it was. He got a standing ovation when he took the stage and far more restrained applause when he left it.

The breakfast was one of the first stops in the selling of the budget. After a month in his office working on -- candidly, learning -- the state budget, he looked like a kid sprung from detention. He stood his ground easily under questioning after his speech.

"I know there are a lot of people in that room who support what I want but don't dare say so," Patrick said by phone a few hours later. We'll see whether that's an optimistic assessment.

His speech yesterday was a rehash of the one he gave on statewide television the night before. In essence, hundreds of programs get trimmed a little, or grow by less than in the past, to address a handful of needs.

Modest would be a fair way to describe it. There is more money for local aid, much of it earmarked for education. It would put a few more police officers on the street and create more slots for kindergarten students, a frequent pledge. If it fully funds healthcare reform, as claimed, that will be its greatest achievement.

Mitt Romney wouldn't have proposed this budget, but -- with the notable exception of the tax hikes -- he could probably live with it.

This has been sold as a "budget balanced without gimmicks," a statement whose truth probably depends on how one defines a gimmick. At first glance, there seems to be less chicanery than usual. But it is also relies on one-time revenues, leaving the question of how one balances the next year's budget. Some of its claims, such as taking a step toward "ending homelessness," are just too vague to even judge.

Patrick yesterday ducked the question of whether it is balanced by jacking up taxes on businesses. He is, he says, closing corporate "loopholes." He told me he wasn't inclined to debate what constitutes a tax hike.

"Anyone whose tax bill goes up feels like it's an increase," Patrick said yesterday, a few hours after the speech. "But that's what homeowners have been feeling for years." The budget also resolves the whopping $1.3 billion deficit left by the Romney administration.

In that context, it was no surprise that there isn't a lot new and exciting in it. New and exciting is costly. Some of the surprises come from what's missing: Substance abuse treatment takes a hit, despite candidate Patrick's calls for treatment on demand, and the state university system is basically level-funded, despite a lot of talk about building a world-class educational system.

If past practice holds, now that the budget has been submitted, it figures to be ripped apart.

Historically, the Legislature and the governor are adversaries in the budget process, and this will be no exception, never mind that the state has a Democratic governor and a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

"We are asking the Legislature to do things differently, and they won't just because a Democrat asks them to," Patrick said. "I don't think we get a pass just because I'm a Democrat."

That he can count on, and rightly so. Passing the budget is the most important thing the Legislature does, and never in memory have the legislators been inclined to defer to the governor. The governor's budget proposal is a starting point, period.

As one State House veteran put it yesterday, "I would expect it will go through the same scrutiny and review and pushing and pulling as any Republican governor's budget."

Most of the numbers in the budget will change between now and July. Patrick's mission, really, is to frame the debate, to preserve the ideas in it, if not the details. That isn't easy to do. This is where the rhetoric of the campaign runs headlong into reality, and everyone in the room yesterday seemed to know it.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at