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Patrick's plans raising doubt and enthusiasm

His big dreams may falter on funding issues

Free community colleges, universal preschool, and full-day kindergarten. A new commuter rail to New Bedford. A $1 billion public investment in biotechnology.

Governor Deval Patrick is thinking big lately, churning out expansive and expensive proposals for long-term projects every few weeks, then basking in praise from students, local officials, life sciences leaders, and other key Massachusetts constituencies.

But he has said little about how he would pay for his plans, and financial analysts say the state probably cannot afford them without finding new revenue or cutting spending elsewhere in the budget. If his education plan is fully implemented for every student, it alone could add as much as $2 billion a year to the state budget by 2017, according to some analysts' estimates.

Patrick has brushed aside doubts about the feasibility of making big changes. Recently he likened skeptics who questioned his education proposals to those who challenged President Kennedy's mission to land a man on the moon.

But in his first five months in office, Patrick has already seen some of his campaign promises fall prey to the reality of governing within a tight budget. His pledge to put 1,000 more police officers on the street, for example, became a proposal to add just 250 this year, and the Legislature wants to cut that number further.

Some political observers say that even though Patrick's boldest ideas might be beyond the state's means, the political benefits of pitching popular, even visionary, proposals outweigh the risks for the freshman governor.

"I think it's an impressive and ambitious agenda," said Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University. ". . . Nobody expects that they're going to come to fruition anytime soon."

But some financial analysts, particularly conservatives, say the governor's proposals are as unrealistic as they are ambitious.

"I think politically he's putting himself in a box," said David Tuerck of the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank. "He won't get all this stuff through the Legislature, because the Legislature won't raise taxes."

Doug Rubin, Patrick's chief of staff, dismissed such criticism as premature. The governor, he said, is laying out a broad vision designed to address the state's most critical long-term economic challenges. Patrick plans to work closely with the Legislature and others to nail down the details in the coming months, he said, just as state leaders did with health reform.

"This takes time, and for critics and naysayers to shoot it down before you even get a chance to have that discussion doesn't do anybody any good," he said.

The Patrick administration also argues that the governor's plans are essential to maintaining the state's economic prosperity and therefore to state government, which depends on income and sales tax dollars to carry out its responsibilities.

Noah Berger, executive director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the feasibility of the governor's plans is "a question of priorities and values." He said that if the administration develops a thorough analysis justifying the spending, the state could choose to cut other programs, or identify new revenue to pay for Patrick's plans.

The governor's latest plans come in addition to campaign promises large and small, from a pledge to add $10 million to the state's parks budget, which he decided was too expensive to fit into his budget proposal this year, to his vow to reduce property taxes, a prominent plank in his campaign platform.

Administration officials point out that Patrick has already tried several routes to cut property taxes since taking office in January, including filing legislation that would allow cities and towns to raise more non-property-tax dollars and to save money on health insurance and pensions. He has also proposed granting up to $870 in tax abatements for low- and moderate-income homeowners, which he would fund by closing so-called loopholes in the corporate tax structure, a payment method the Legislature has not greeted warmly.

Meanwhile, the financial pressure on the state budget is growing. The costs of salaries, pensions, and healthcare are rising faster than tax revenue, which is expected to increase less next fiscal year than it did in years past. Billions of capital projects have accumulated, including $15 billion to $19 billion for transportation alone, and the state has a self-imposed bonding limit of $1.25 billion in new debt each year.

In this context, the cost of the governor's proposals seems daunting, particularly the education proposals, which could have the biggest impact on the operating budget. Patrick has said he will form a committee to study the proposals and how to pay for them. Education officials and advocates say the cost could easily come in much lower than $2 billion if the plans are not implemented universally.

"I think there's certainly a tremendous amount of vision in the education plan, but I approach the financing side of it with a great deal of trepidation," said Steve Poftak, research director for the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank. "I think it's going to be tremendously difficult to come up with the funds for each one of these initiatives."

The sheer scope of Patrick's plans, some budget analysts believe, will open the door to talk about the need for new sources of revenue.

Patrick is studying the possibility of legalizing expanded gambling. State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill has recently proposed a casino gambling plan he says would bring the state as much as $1 billion a year.

Administration officials, however, say the governor plans to implement his agenda over many years, which would soften the impact on the state budget. And those who admire his ideas say Patrick ought to think big, even a little too big.

"I think the governor understands he's not going to get everything he asked for," said Thomas M. Finneran, the former House speaker and now the host of a talk show on WRKO radio. "But it's part of his job to take that bully pulpit as governor and to point out the directions, plural, that the state needs to consider."

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.


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