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Plan Boosts Tech Center

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By JULIE MEHEGAN and JENNIFER FENN

BOSTON- Gov. Mitt Romney yesterday proposed spending $19.5 million for a highly touted technology research center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, which university officials have been planning for years. Supporters say the center will help create and retain vital manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts.

Funding for the nanomanufacturing center is part of $457 million supplemental spending bill the governor filed yesterday, which the administration says is made possible by higher-than-anticipated tax revenues for the current fiscal year

The funds, which would become available for immediate spending, would also provide significant financial relief to cities and towns. Romney said communities would see an additional $100 million in local aid, and should allow some to reverse spending cuts and layoffs they have been forced to make.

'What a difference a year and a half makes,' Romney said at a Statehouse press conference, noting the huge budget gaps the state was forced to close in the months since he was sworn into office in 2003.

The administration credits the surplus to an increase in revenue over projections from a range of sources, and say the boost comes as a result of government reforms. After paying back the state's rainy-day fund to the tune of $130 million, the state has about $500 million left over for the year, Romney said.

But legislative leaders disagree with Romney's assessment, and say he is simply playing politics.

'Just because money is coming in beyond the estimated revenue benchmarks, it's no time to declare victory,' said Rep. Peter Larkin, D-Pittsfield, a top budget leader in the House. 'And then to couple it with a tax cut? The only thing missing from this is the campaign glossy.'

Romney's plan calls for rolling back the state income tax from 5.3 to 5 percent beginning in January 2005. The voter-approved tax rollback has been on hold while the state deals with the economic crisis, and like Larkin, critics say the state still can't afford it.

Despite differences on Beacon Hill over the surplus, UMass Lowell Chancellor William Hogan said he is thrilled with the support for the university's efforts in the growing field of nanotechnology, which involves technologies at the level of atoms and molecules.

Nanomanufacturing is the process of producing tangible materials and devices from structures that are about one billionth of a meter in size. The miniature structures potentially could be used for a variety of high-technology applications, such as creating new medical devices, optical devices, nanoelectronics, chemical sensors and biosensors.

Specialists say nanomanufacturing is the key to turning research into reality and creating much-needed manufacturing jobs. Such research is ongoing at UMass Lowell, which has focused on this technology as a potential growth engine.

'For the region and for the university, it is a great day,' Hogan said. 'For the campus, it's an exact fit for us to help the region to sustain its economic development. It is a perfect fit.'

The funding which requires House and Senate approval would finance the cost of building a new nanomanufacturing center in the Lawrence Mills building near the UMass campus.

Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, said recent meetings with the Romney administration to sell the concept of the nanotechnology center resulted in the inclusion of funding in the supplemental budget.

'It fits right into their policy of aggressively going after jobs, making UMass a research engine, and trying to expand our competitive advantage in research,' Panagiotakos said. 'The governor's commitment here is certainly a huge step in the right direction for us and a huge step toward this becoming a reality.'

Panagiotakos said the measure will require continued lobbying in both branches, but he is optimistic.

Lowell City Manager John Cox was pleasantly surprised that the administration is looking to boost state aid to communities.

'That's really good news,'' he said. 'I'll be able to sleep tonight.''

Cox said the administration has spent the last three weeks struggling to hammer out a balanced budget for the city, and the additional $2.6 million the city would receive under the Romney proposal would remove some of that pressure.

'With this money, we could go back and revisit some things,'' Cox said. 'It's much needed and much welcome.'

The supplemental budget also proposes $55 million for improvements to state parks; $20 million for deferred maintenance projects at UMass campuses and state and community colleges; $50 million for road and bridge improvements; $19 million for adult basic-education services, including English as a Second Language; and $10 million for MCAS remediation summer programs in the lowest-performing school districts.

The plan also calls for spending $2.3 million for repairs and maintenance work at Tewksbury Hospital; $1.2 million for work on the Route 3A/B&M Railroad bridge in Chelmsford; $250,000 for the painting of three bridges in Lowell; and $2.7 million for the Walden Pond gateway project in Concord.

Romney's proposal now moves to the Legislature, which is also preparing a separate spending proposal for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. But in a statement, Senate President Robert Travaglini said the state should avoid going on a 'spending spree' with its finances still on shaky ground.

'This is not the time to act rashly and declare the commonwealth's fiscal crisis over in the face of short-term revenue gains,' Travaglini said. 'Massachusetts fell further and harder during the recession than most other states and we continue to lag behind the nation in recovering jobs and business.'