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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A wise investment

Massachusetts has a history of trailblazing -- from the Industrial Revolution born in Lowell to the high technology and biotechnology revolutions nurtured in the labs at Harvard. MIT and UMass.

But Massachusetts has never been good at finishing what it starts -- with industry inevitably moving away for cheap resources and cheaper labor. The $1 billion biotechnology proposal unveiled yesterday by Deval Patrick, Terry Murray and Sal DiMasi is an effort to change that track record.

I can see the advertising tag line: Stem Cells: They're Not Just for Political Pandering Anymore.

The proposal highlights the different economic and philosophical differences between Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick.

The gone-and-unlamented former governor staked his claim to fame in this area at using stem cells to trump up his bona fides with conservative voters across the country. To make his posturing stronger, he used a lame duck appointment to install a crony in a key role in developing future policy.

Patrick, on the other hand, has come out of the gate with a proposal designed to highlight one of the centerpieces of the Massachusetts economy -- health care and life sciences -- and take a gamble that maybe, finally we can develop and keep an industry here.

It's instructive that he has been joined in this effort by the Legislature's Democratic leaders. It's equally instructive to listen to what passes for leadership among the state's conservatives, including the nearly-dead state GOP.

"This is a completely inappropriate direction to be taking," said David Tuerck, director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's an industrial policy where the governor gets in the business of picking winners and losers and trying to do what private capital markets are . . . already doing quite well."

House minority leader Bradley Jones, Republican of North Reading, wondered why Patrick would propose such an expensive plan at the same time he is grappling with a budget that is out of balance.
The free market has voted in the past -- taking its jobs and tax revenues to North Carolina and elsewhere. The investment into public resources such as UMass to generate research -- and hopefully, down the road, jobs -- is an entirely appropriate function of government.

And, of course, there's the old line of you've got to spend money to make money. Yes, we are grappling with an out-of-balance budget this year. The investments, however, are in capital funds through the issuance of bonds. The near-term cost to the operating budget is for the cost of paying interest on that $100 million annual investment.

That said, Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation is right on one thing:
It's a question of priorities. From my perspective, this is an economic bet. The jury is still out."
Betting on stem cells and biotech as a foundation of the state's economic future is one I'm ready to take far more readily than one used as a foundation for one politician's personal future.

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