State House Roundup: What’s Past Is Prologue
THE STATE HOUSE — Exhortations of “generational responsibility” crystalized in proposed solutions to those pesky policy conundrums that have twisted lawmakers for decades gave way this week to a sense of déjà vu as past debates became present again.
As the doors to the State House swung open to nuclear experts, veterans of the Seabrook and Pilgrim fights and owners of those reactors in New England that once again have struck fear in the hearts of Bay Staters watching the Japanese struggle to avoid nuclear meltdown, inhabitants of the Dome were checking their calendars to make sure it wasn’t 1972 all over again.
Entergy officials, who own and operate the Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee plants, assured the dozens of lawmakers on hand that their plants were safe – at least safer than those in Japan with less risk of tsunami and earthquake to worry about.
But that didn’t stop the governor, Speaker and Senate President from calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to halt the 20-year relicensing process for Pilgrim until the lessons from Japan are fully digested.
The looming shutdown of the federal government brought back memories of the early 1990s with one-key figure from those days – Newt Gingrich – mulling a present-day run for the White House. Though state officials were unable to articulate what a shutdown might mean precisely for the state, the possibility of a budget stalemate created just about the only scenario that could spark clamoring for continued IRS operations. Two words: tax refund.
Lawmakers heard testimony about the need to reform the state’s public pension system to avoid passing on the ballooning $19 billion unfunded liability to “our grandchildren,” but after years of tweaking the system to eliminate abuses and increase employee contributions, unions insisted the system was working just fine.
If ever there was a time to talk about increasing the retirement age, this year might be it with billions in state spending being swept off the books by budget writers. But that would be to assume there is ever a good time to talk about increasing the retirement age.
The Impatient Man, a.k.a. Gov. Deval Patrick, also re-emerged, this time pounding the podium to drive home his desire to address health care cost control sooner rather the later, the one major hurdle left to Patrick being able to declare total success in reforming health care.
On the House-described timetable to tackle health care costs by sometime next spring, Patrick said, “It’s got to come sooner than that,” warning that he would not tolerate debating reform “to death.”
With health care reform supporters gearing up to celebrate the 5th Anniversary of the law that expanded insurance access to 98 percent of Massachusetts residents, one House leader said Patrick may have been overselling his solution to the problem of rising premiums.
“I disagree there’s a broad-based consensus that this bill is going to cut costs for anybody,” said House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, casually swinging the pendulum of cooperation between the Executive and Legislative branches back to the familiar place of tolerance.
A 20-year veteran of the ways of Beacon Hill, Mariano said he’s worried he’s heard this song before, and doesn’t like it: “In the 1990s we embraced HMOs and then we had the patients’ bill of rights that undid everything HMOs were about. We don’t want a repeat of that,” Mariano said.
Whether you believe health care is working in Massachusetts – 49 percent do not, according to a new Suffolk University poll – Patrick has a lot riding on his proposed revamp of the health care payment system to get a handle on rising costs without jeopardizing the quality of care.
Not only could it be his legacy, and one that must be cemented in the next three years, but soon Patrick will be traveling the country to talk up President Barack Obama, and will most likely be called upon to defend the Massachusetts health care experiment that became a model for federal reform.
More than one health care industry insider who heard the governor’s speech wondered privately whether the White House had as big a stake in Patrick’s legislation as the governor.
Patrick insists Massachusetts can be the first to “crack the code” to lower health care costs, and as voters learned this week, if they didn’t know already, the governor likes “firsts.”
In his nomination of Appellate Court Judge Barbara Lenk to the Supreme Judicial Court, Patrick called it a “nice coincidence and a happy one” that she could become the first openly gay justice. Days later, Patrick bristled at the suggestion made by some members of the Governor’s Council that he was pandering to interest groups by this appointment, setting the scene for what could be a fascinating, if not tense, confirmation hearing later this month.
With Senate President Therese Murray using the pulpit of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to promote “performance management” and oversight of state programs, Murray seemed to be making at least a partial admission that everything in state government might not be working as well as lawmakers often say it is.
Auditor Suzanne Bump seemed to agree. Unveiling one of her first major audits since taking office, Bump testified to lawmakers that the state’s business tax breaks – often approved to much ballyhoo – are too often tucked away in a “black box.” One can only assume that box is not much different than Al Gore’s Medicare “lock box,” only Bump believes this safe needs to be cracked.
The Legislature also ended its work-week on Thursday by signing off on a $200 million road and bridge repair bond bill, after three committee hearings, three iterations of the bill, and a momentary stand-off between the House and Senate over contract adjustment language.
More curious, however, was the decision to reverse course in the Senate a week before the House is due to unveil its budget proposal and commit to doing a local aid resolution before the end of next week. Senate budget chief Stephen Brewer had previously resisted the idea because of the uncertainty over tax revenues, but after strong March collections there appeared to be a shift.
The only question now is what a local aid resolution will look like if the House has already finalized its budget. Asked directly if March collections would impact local aid, DeLeo said his budget was already at the printer, but he doubted it would have made a difference.
“We just want to make sure that just isn’t one blip upward and we’re not going to have blips downward in the future,” DeLeo said.
So will the Senate go it alone?
STORY OF THE WEEK: If at first you don’t succeed…….
HAPPY COINCIDENCES: After losing 1,600 jobs to Rhode Island and China, a few hundred coming in the other direction barely got noticed this week. Bank of New York Mellon Corp. announced plans to close its Pawtucket office and move 200 jobs to Westborough. If not for Fidelity planning to uproot 1,100 jobs from Marlborough and shifting many south to its offices in Smithfield, R.I., the BNY news may have been cause for celebration. But for now, Rhode Island is still winning.