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Speech cancellation leaves Patrick unable to outline priorities ahead of budget release

It is a ritual carefully timed to allow the governor to deploy gilded rhetoric directly to lawmakers and the public before he goes about the drier business of announcing his annual budget. But Tuesday’s snowstorm upended those plans and deprived Governor Deval Patrick of his last chance to outline his priorities and fend off the perception that he is a lame-duck before he releases his final budget on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Patrick abruptly postponed his final State of Commonwealth speech four hours before he was set to deliver it, saying it would not be safe to for hundreds of lawmakers and dignitaries to drive to and from State House during a major snowstorm.

At a hastily convened State House press conference, a tie-less Patrick said the storm was, “unfortunately, forecasted to be quite a bit stronger and faster than originally forecast,” and could dump 12 to 14 inches of snow across the state.

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Patrick will likely still appear at a budget rollout on Wednesday, but such events lack the stagecraft and drama that accompany formal addresses in the House chamber, and will not be televised as widely.

Unlike the release of the budget—an operating blueprint written in the abstruse language of line items—the State of the Commonwealth speech is the chief executive’s annual opportunity to seize the bully pulpit and announce that year’s priorities.

This year’s speech has acquired increased importance because it is the last of Patrick’s two terms, and he faces a spate of state government controversies and the spreading perception that his political power has diminished.

While the speech’s date can be moved, Patrick must cannot postpone the budget release because the state Constitution requires governors to unveil their spending plans within three weeks of the convening of the Legislature. This year that date falls on Jan. 22.

The governor said he is hoping to deliver his speech later this week, but must coordinate the date with legislative leaders because the House chamber, the traditional venue for the addresses, “is their real estate.”

Patrick downplayed the political ramifications of having to give the speech after releasing his budget plans, arguing it will only affect “the tenses of the some of the verbs,” in his speech.

“We’ll be able to do it in another day or two,” Patrick said. “It’ll give me an opportunity to sharpen, or tighten, the language.”

But Jason Kauppi, a communications strategist who worked in both the Cellucci and Swift administrations, said the storm could rob Patrick of an important political moment.

“If this is a budget that he wants to get passed, it’s a missed opportunity to talk to lawmakers directly and get them on board, a missed opportunity to appear with the Senate president and House speaker, to show some solidarity there,” Kauppi said Tuesday. “He’s probably going to have to make it up on the back end.”

Still, Kauppi said, Legislators would tell you it doesn’t really matter, they’re going to pass the budget they want to pass.”

David Falcone, a Denterlein Public Relations executive who worked for years as Senate President Therese Murray’s communications director, said the inverted schedule could play in Patrick’s favor.

“He’ll have the opportunity now to respond in a prime-time speech to any criticism or reports that are already out there,” Falcone said. “So that’s a plus.”

Despite its calendar slot in prime blizzard season, the speech has historically proven impervious to nature’s wrath. In 2008, Patrick postponed the address by a day due to a “scheduling conflict,” but did so nearly two weeks in advance, according to the State House News Service.

Several State House veterans said they could not recall any governor postponing the speech on such short notice.

“Off the top of my head, I can’t,” said Robert Q. Crane, who served in the House from 1957 to 1964 and was the state treasurer from 1964 until 1991. “I think I would remember if it were cancelled for snow or any reason. But I think it’s the right call. You put a lot of people in danger.”

“I’m sure it might have happened at some point in the history of the Commonwealth, but I don’t remember it happening during my own political career,” former governor Michael S. Dukakis, who first joined the House in 1963, wrote in an email. “Fortunately, the blizzard of ‘78 waited until February.”

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