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Patrick meets with Mass. delegation on stimulus plan

Glen Johnson

Gov. Deval Patrick met last week with the state’s congressional delegation, labor leaders, construction executives and economists as he tried to ensure that Massachusetts is ready and able to spend the money expected to flow from the economic stimulus bill that President-elect Barack Obama says is one of his top priorities.

Patrick said the state already is poised to spend $1 billion of its own on capital projects, but he also presented members of the Massachusetts House delegation with $4.7 billion worth of projects he said could be started within six months should the Obama plan pass Congress.

The value of that package has ranged from $500 billion to $1 trillion, to be disbursed over one or two years.

Patrick would distribute $1.5 billion for projects requested by cities and towns, $783 million in the transportation sector and $629 million on state facilities.

Among them: $811 million for clean water projects, $200 million for rebates to replace oil furnaces with pellet stoves and $100 million to accelerate solar power conversions at state facilities. The list also includes bridge repairs across the state, as well as road resurfacing and individual requests such as $29 million for roadwork around Nantucket Airport.

“We are poised to take advantage of an opportunity to rebuild our roads [and] our bridges, but also, at the same time, to focus upon our innovation economy that has given us stimulus and green jobs and broadband technology and biotech that can help give Massachusetts an economic edge in the future,” said U.S. Rep. Edward Markey of Malden, the delegation’s dean, after an hourlong meeting at the State House.

Later in the day, the governor convened a roundtable discussion with some of his top economic advisers, as well as local financial luminaries such as Bank of America executive Anne Finucane, construction company owner John Fish and AFL-CIO head Robert Haynes.

“We’ve got to get Massachusetts ready, because depending on the scale of the federal investment and the use-it-or-lose-it provisions that the president-elect has talked about, we don’t want to be in the position to leave any dollars on the table,” Patrick said.

Patrick also was careful to distinguish between the heavy spending he is trying to promote and his simultaneous talk of belt-tightening due to lagging tax collections. He has already cut more than $1 billion from the state budget and says more cuts are likely.

That spending, however, is in the state’s operating budget; most of the projects are for fixed purposes and considered capital spending.

With the federal government poised to increase its contribution, or fully fund some capital projects, “this is spending we can’t afford not to do,” the governor said.

Patrick and the others also said they hoped capital spending would boost the operating budget by expanding economic activity that generates tax income.

Cathy Minehan, Boston’s former Federal Reserve chief, encouraged the effort despite the sagging economy, saying, “Uncertainty is no reason for paralysis.”

The federal stimulus package is expected to come on top of the congressional reauthorization of public works funding, a one-two punch that has the potential to overwhelm states — especially their transportation bureaucracies — if they are not prepared. It also could be a boon in particular to construction workers, but less of one to employees laid off from the state’s health care, academic and financial sectors.

U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch of Boston, a former ironworker, expressed hope that the stimulus work will involve local laborers to boost in-state spending, while his colleague James McGovern of Worcester said he expected some of the money would be dedicated to social services straining with an influx of cases as the nation enters its worst recession since the Great Depression.

“Help is on the way,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, the former mayor of Springfield, said he also impressed upon Patrick the importance of spreading the work around the state — especially in the aftermath of the $15 billion Central Artery project in Boston.

“Many of us saw worthwhile projects fall by the wayside during those Big Dig years, and the result is that those projects, I hope, make their way back up to the top of the list,” Neal said. “There’s a bigger state out there than Boston.”

Like Patrick, the members noted that the president-elect has urged states to have their wish lists ready, since he wants the money to be spent immediately both to restore infrastructure but also to lower unemployment and spur consumer spending.

“Each state, the better ready they are, the more they can take advantage of the opportunity,” said U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas of Lowell.

U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano of Somerville told reporters: “Whatever we come up with in Washington, however it’s distributed, however much money there might be, Massachusetts will be in a better position after today’s meeting.”

(Associated Press)