Creating a Higher State of Competitiveness

It was with significant fanfare — and some lofty rhetoric — that Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a 10-year, $1 billion life-sciences bill that he first put on the table more than a year ago in an effort to boost the state’s already-strong national and global position in that industry.

The measure calls for a $95 million research center at UMass Amherst, and the university’s president, Jack Wilson, called the life-sciences initiative “a game changer for the Commonwealth.” Elaborating, he said the bill would create “new breakthroughs, new jobs, and new companies.”

It will do so, according to its proponents, through $250 million in tax credits for companies, $250 million in research grants, and $500 million in bonds for capital projects. Locally, in addition to the new research center at UMass, the bill calls for $5.5 million to be earmarked for a business incubator at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield, a joint venture between UMass and Baystate Health.

Dr. Paul Friedmann, director of the PVLSI, said the bill will enable the state to more effectively compete with other states and other countries at a time when said competition is considerable — and mounting. Indeed, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Mally this week unveiled his own $1.1 billion plan to buoy that state’s life-sciences industry, while California, Texas, and other states have also made sizeable investments.

But if the BIO bill, as it’s called in some quarters, represents a step forward, perhaps a giant step, in terms of competitiveness in that all-important sector, the state is in danger of taking two steps back with regard to its overall economic health and prospects for future job growth.

Several measures small and large, ranging from $500 million in corporate tax hikes that are soon to be enacted, to soaring health insurance costs, to a bill mandating triple damages in cases involving violation of state wage-and-hour laws, threaten to seriously impact the state’s level of competitiveness and possibly bring the term ‘Taxachusetts’ back into vogue.

The governor didn’t sign the amendment to the Commonwealth’s wage-and-hour laws — in fact, he wrote legislators a letter warning them of its possible consequences to businesses large and small. But only a few of the representatives heeded the message.

And this was not a conservative Republican governor sending out that letter and challenging the largely Democratic Legislature to take a step back and consider the ramifications of its actions — but a fellow Democrat, one who took office with hopes that he and members of the House and Senate could work together to bolster the state’s economic future.

The disconnect between Patrick and the Legislature on the triple-damages provision underscores the need for a government-wide focus on making this state more competitive across all sectors of business.

What’s needed overall is a change in attitude, and this is nothing new. For too long now, business in Massachusetts has been viewed as something to tax more heavily when times are tough. When jobs are lost and businesses close or move out, there is significant mourning and finger-pointing about what could have been done differently. But there has never really been a broad focus on efforts to truly make Massachusetts more business-friendly.

Elected leaders can do it for a little while, as they did in the late ’90s, and they can make some big headlines, as they did with the BIO bill. But they need to be more consistent and, overall, change the general attitude about business in this state. And they need to do it soon, because the competition is mounting, and not just in the life-sciences sector.

The BIO bill may indeed prove to be a game-changing step for Massachusetts. It holds enormous promise for the state and especially for UMass Amherst, which can, and needs to be, a more powerful economic engine for the Commonwealth.

But while putting in place these tax credits, bonds, and research grants for selected players in this emerging sector, elected officials have to consider businesses of all shapes and sizes and what it will take to bring them here or keep them here.

And this will take real leadership — something we need to see much more of.

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