Swift eyes change for bilingual ed

Also will pursue business tax break

Acting Governor Jane Swift tonight will propose reforms to the state’s 30-year-old bilingual education law, trying to steer a middle course between those who say bilingual programs ease non-English speaking children into the mainstream and those who say they coddle them.

In her first State of the State address, the acting governor will also try to assure the public she is moving quickly to blunt the effects of the recession and restore economic growth. She will propose increasing tax breaks for businesses that expand in poorer areas, and pledge to fight any legislative effort to scale back the voter-approved income tax rollback.

The speech will also contain a plea for civility as she heads into what is likely to be a rancorous, rough-and-tumble election year.

”I’m going to ask that we separate what our policy differences and debates are from how we conduct our business,” she said yesterday. ”One of the first things that my dad taught me when I got into politics is that you can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Swift will continue to seek to position herself as a moderate Republican, stressing socially liberal and fiscally conservative policies.

On bilingual education, Swift is trying to make the law stricter, while avoiding what many view as a Draconian solution proposed in an initiative backed by California businessman Ron Unz.

Current law provides a three-year bilingual transition period. Swift would cut that period to two years, while giving districts more flexibility to design their own programs for helping students learn English.

Unz’s initiative essentially scraps the bilingual law in favor of a single year of ”English immersion.” Unz’s group needs to collect an additional 10,000 signatures to earn a spot on the November ballot. Swift said she is worried that the fight could become bitter, and wants the Legislature to take action instead.

It won’t be easy. Earlier efforts in the Legislature have collapsed because of a lack of consensus, and Unz is unlikely to back away.

On the economy, Swift will announce an expansion of the state’s Economic Development Initiative Program, or EDIP, proposing the tripling of tax breaks for companies that add jobs in cities and towns with unusually high unemployment rates.

Currently, the EDIP gives companies a 5 percent break on corporate income taxes to encourage them to locate and thrive in vulnerable towns like Lawrence, Lowell, Chelsea, and Brockton. Now, if the unemployment rate in those towns goes 50 percent above the state average, the companies will be eligible for 15 percent tax breaks.

The unemployment rate in November, the latest month for which figures are available, was 4.3 percent. Companies would be eligible for the tripled tax concession if the rate in their area rises to 6.5 percent. Lawrence and Lowell are already at that threshold. The program would cost the state an estimated $10 million annually.

As the economy remains sluggish and state revenues lag, Swift’s Democratic opponents in the race for governor are likely to blame her for the state’s ailing finances and to link the economic downturn to the $1.2 billion tax cut championed by Governor Paul Cellucci in 2000.

In the interview yesterday, Swift stuck by the tax rollback, despite the fact that she is preparing a budget for fiscal 2003 that will shave $500 million from existing programs. She would not detail what programs would be cut.

Indeed, she counted the tax cut as one of her greatest achievements as lieutenant governor and credited it with making the state more attractive to companies looking to locate here.

”The surpluses we’ve amassed over the past 10 years are the result of a tax policy that kept our economy growing,” she said. ”The tax changes over the last 10 years were done because we were so far out of whack with the rest of the country, and it was far, far too expensive to live and work here. To undo all the advances we’ve made would be silly.”

During the interview, Swift poured herself cup after cup of coffee, a cut finger plastered with a Winnie-the-Pooh Band-Aid.

Swift said that her three children, including twin girls born last year, would remain shielded from public view during the gubernatorial campaign. Her husband, Chuck Hunt, whose aversion to the limelight is well known, will ”be around, though it will be harder because of his responsibilities” with the children, she said.

Swift, the first governor to give birth while in office, also mused on her precedent-setting status, saying she was ”amazed” at the things that set her apart.

”Things that people point to as sort of firsts for me in a lot of ways are the most normal things about me,” Swift said. ”The truth is that there are probably a lot of mothers who cut their finger over the weekend and only had a Pooh Band-Aid. A lot of people are having babies.”

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