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State House Roundup: Capitol Steps

THE STATE HOUSE — One by one, the proud men of the 2010 governor’s race strode to a sun-splashed microphone set before a glistening golden dome, shoulders high, chests thoroughly puffed, and, through nasty charges and countercharges, proceeded to let the world know: election season has officially begun.

It could have been a Jill Stein commercial, if only she had the funds to air it.

The consecutive appearances by Gov. Deval Patrick, Treasurer Tim Cahill and Republican Charles Baker on the State House steps Wednesday were a new beginning of sorts, a chance to wash away the wreckage of legislative combat and replace it with the vicious hyperbole, historical revisionism and addictive entertainment of Massachusetts electoral politics. Queue the lengthy vacations for capitol regulars.

For Baker, although the week featured a reprise of the Big Dig financing fiasco and his role in it, it began with some good news. Sort of.

In a Monday memorandum, Baker’s campaign pollster, Neil Newhouse, declared that Baker is “right where he wants to be” — in second place. Newhouse made the case that Baker’s positive image as an outsider in an anti-incumbent environment positions him perfectly to overtake Patrick in time for Election Day. (Imagine the spin had he been in the lead.)

On the flipside, Patrick still leads Baker, albeit by single digits (39-32), even after governing through the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression — which long ago became the default excuse for, well, just about everything — and signing into law a broad-based tax increase. Cahill, lagging behind at 17 percent, sought traction this week by calling for the state’s political boundaries to be redrawn through an SJC-appointed commission and noting Patrick had failed to round up support for the independent redistricting commission he had campaigned for four years ago.

In another bout of good news for Baker, Patrick appears to have lost the Wyclef primary. Wyclef Jean — ‘Clef, as the clearly well-versed governor called him this week — singer, songwriter, and allegedly tax-challenged Haitian presidential candidate, bailed on a Patrick fundraiser hours after the governor’s political team leaked the hot tip about his planned appearance. At a Tuesday news conference, Patrick let slip that his favorite Wyclef tune is “Redemption Song” — actually a Bob Marley original.

The snapping and sniping among the candidates drowned out the seemingly endless clacking of casino dice still rattling in everyone’s ears. Speculation abounded. The week began with hyperventilation within the press corps about lawmakers’ super-secret plans to return to session to dispense with Gov. Patrick’s racino-killing amendment, and, while they’re at it, divvy up a $655 million job-saving, deficit-sustaining gift from President Obama and a Democratic Congress. The only catch was there was no agreement between the branches about such a session. Plenty of disagreement, really.

The infusion of six months of extended federal aid — aimed at preserving public sector teaching, police and firefighter jobs but ripped in a D.C. special session as another reckless state bailout — sparked some mind-boggling rhetorical gymnastics among the gubernatorial candidates who all, in so many words, said they would take the money and spend it within the next 10 months. The issue proved particularly difficult for Baker and Cahill, who said they would have voted against the aid in Congress, but wouldn’t turn it down now that it’s been passed, even though they’d have that option as governor.

“Washington is now sending us money and telling us exactly how we have to spend it, and that’s just not sustainable unless we want to give up our sovereignty and let the state be run from Washington, D.C.,” Cahill said. Baker said he agreed with Sen. Scott Brown about the danger of increasing the federal deficit and said he’d bank the funds for a while before spending them. Congressional Democrats agreed to cut food stamps in four years and end some tax breaks, plans they said would make the bill a deficit shrinker.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers wondering how to spend their grandkids’ money slow-walked talk of a special session, and if history is a guide, could forge a deal during informal sessions — Republican Karyn Polito’s threat to block it notwithstanding. A pair of senators — one Democrat and one Republican — on Thursday indicated that even with the promise of federal money, the Senate is unlikely to return for formal action this year.

“Procedurally, it’s a long-shot at best,” said Sen. Anthony Petruccelli (D-Boston) on Thursday.

Amid all this was a little-noticed twinkle in Senate President Therese Murray’s eye: health care payment reform, the holy grail of cost control and perhaps the biggest issue to go unresolved this session, is on the move, the citizens were told. Before Patrick’s signature had dried on a new law aimed at providing small businesses relief from cresting health care costs, Patrick disclosed the administration has been trading language with Murray’s office on payment reform, getting an early start on next year’s legislative agenda. Patrick told reporters he plans to press the issue this fall “notwithstanding the campaign.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: In biannual tradition, politics overtook policy on the Hill.

RAISING HELL: Poor Joe DeNucci thought he was giving his loyal 300-person staff a parting gift when he quietly boosted their pay by 5 percent this week, an increase that would cost $700,000 if kept in place for the full fiscal year. Instead, the six-term state auditor, retiring at the end of this year, earned himself the lead Wednesday Globe story and the condemnation of the three major gubernatorial candidates, as well as some of the candidates vying to replace him.

NATIONAL ECONOMIC TURMOIL: Encouraging economic signs in Massachusetts gave way this week to the reality that America is still suffering. Ben Bernanke and the wonks at the Federal Reserve have warned of a renewed slowdown, which has been coupled with reports of weaker than expected job growth. Developments in the stock and housing markets were downright rugged and spurred some economists to project an essentially unnoticeable recovery, at best, lasting many years.

REPUBLICANS BEHAVING BADLY: An allegedly intoxicated longtime state senator and erstwhile Big Dig chief Matt Amorello captivated the Bay State this week, particularly after local outlets published Khalid-Sheikh-Mohammed-like pictures of his scruffy, pepper-sprayed face, eyes firmly shut. Although he’s served as a bipartisan punching bag since the fatal tunnel collapse that occurred on his watch, Amorello won some sympathizers after details of his troubled post-public life emerged, as well as questions about the police’s handling of his arrest. But more than a few residents wondered about double standards and how Amorello had managed to miss his arraignment after allegedly destroying two parked cars in the middle of the night. Amorello was hardly alone this week: Christy Mihos was hit with a jaw-dropping $70,000 penalty after getting nabbed for, among other things, falsifying corporate contributions to his campaign to make them appear as though they were from individuals.

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