Life sciences plan gets a makeover

$1b House bill called boost for Patrick

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 15, 2008

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi unveiled a plan yesterday that would give $1 billion over 10 years to the state's life-sciences industry and hand Governor Deval Patrick an opportunity for a major political victory.

While DiMasi's proposal to boost the biotechnology and medical-device industry differs in some key respects from the one Patrick proposed last year, it does incorporate the major elements of the governor's initiative to build on the state's reputation as a national hub for scientific research.

The big-ticket bill is one of several areas of potential agreement between DiMasi and Patrick that have emerged this week on Beacon Hill, setting up chances for Patrick to gain momentum after a frustrating first year, if the freshman governor is willing to compromise.

DiMasi is seeking to put his own imprint on the life sciences plan with an array of narrowly targeted, regional spending initiatives that would benefit individual companies, communities, and University of Massachusetts campuses. Even roadbuilders, vocational high school students, and scientists in Israel get a piece.

"Everybody's going to find something to like in this," said Representative Daniel Bosley, one of the chief writers of the legislation.

The plan includes $12.6 million to build an interchange on Interstate 93 near Andover, where the state wants to spur development of science-related companies; $12.9 million to improve sewage treatment in Framingham, which would benefit an expansion planned by Genzyme Corp.; and $30 million for vocational and technical high schools to improve life sciences courses. About $10 million would be used to establish a partnership with scientists in Haifa, Israel.

The bill calls for $95 million to build a life science center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and $90 million for a center for genetic research and genetic therapy on the UMass Medical School campus in Worcester.

"We need to extend our lead, and we need to expand our dominance," DiMasi told a room full of lawmakers, scientists, and lobbyists.

"We have the young talent, the brain power. We have the institutions. Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have the political will."

Although Patrick's bill was much more broadly defined, the governor said yesterday he was pleased that the House was taking action on legislation that has been stalled on Beacon Hill for months.

"It's definitely progress," Patrick told reporters. "The speaker has kept his word, which is to keep this moving."

Patrick recently began calling for more action from the Legislature, warning in his State of the State address last month about "the cost of inaction."

He has also suggested that biotech companies were choosing to locate elsewhere because the House was taking too long to take up his initiatives.

DiMasi said Patrick's nudging had not spurred the recent movement.

"It has nothing to do with any of that, believe me," DiMasi said yesterday. "We're on our own schedule here. . . . You can see how complicated this bill was. It's been in the works day in and day out. We have our own goals."

"It's unnecessary to say there's inaction. Just look at the product that was produced here," he added. ". . . It's not like he makes a proposal and it has to be done that way. This is a legislative process."

The life sciences bill is the second sign of progress between Patrick and DiMasi this week. On Tuesday, DiMasi embraced another of the governor's key initiatives, tightening corporate tax laws to make it harder for companies to avoid state taxes.

DiMasi, however, is proposing cutting the state's corporate rate much more quickly and more dramatically than Patrick has, and the governor has not said whether he agrees.

"The governor should be pleased," said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "Both of the bills were amended significantly, but the essence of what the governor has proposed carries forward."

Patrick first introduced the life-sciences measure in May 2007, and with DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray smiling at his side, it appeared it would be quickly passed.

But the governor did not file the bill until July, the House did not assign it to a committee until the end of summer, and there were disagreements over how the money should be distributed.

The redrafted version that DiMasi and House leaders issued yesterday mirrors Patrick's plan in broad measures, designating $500 million in bonds for capital projects, $250 million in research grants, and $250 million for targeted tax credits to Massachusetts-based companies.

The House bill also establishes five regional offices throughout the state, expanding the state bureaucracy by about a dozen employees who would help businesses decide whether to locate in Massachusetts.

"It's not just Cambridge and Boston anymore," said Bosley, a North Adams Democrat and chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. "It's Worcester, Fall River, and the Pioneer Valley."

Some suggested yesterday that the House version runs the risk of getting bogged down with too many earmarks that wouldn't have the same impact as fewer, larger grants.

"The one note of caution is the issue of scale," said William Guenther, president of Mass Insight Corporation, a Boston think tank. "If we break the money up into too many different pools that are too small, we risk marginalizing the impact."

House leaders declined to say yesterday how many jobs the legislation would create. Patrick has said it would bring 250,000 jobs, a figure that some call too high.

The bill will be taken up next week by the House Committee on Ways and Means and is expected to be before the full House in two weeks.

The Senate has been largely supportive, although Murray declined to comment yesterday other than to say through a spokesman, "We're looking forward to taking up the legislation as soon as possible."

Matt Viser can be reached at

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