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State House Roundup: Recess Pieces

THE STATE HOUSE — History may forget that the road to transgender protection was littered with the bloody entrails of deliberative democracy, trumped by big-D Democrats’ desire to strike a blow for civil rights while safely ensconced in a non-election year.

Their hands forced by an increasingly clamorous band of freshman Republicans – skippered by veteran Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Pembroke) – Democratic leaders in the House, abetted by a mostly compliant flock, decided Tuesday night that they just didn’t have time for the divisiveness of an emotionally charged debate with 24 hours to go until a seven-week recess.

Debate, leadership decreed, would be limited to an hour, and 94 members agreed, voting to suspend their own right to deliberate an issue that had been bottled up in committee for the last five years.

Of course, the decision to curb their own ability to debate public policy was in response to an equally eye-opening tactic employed by that band of Republicans. Between 13 of them, 39 amendments were filed to study various potential impacts of protecting transgender Massachusetts residents in the non-discrimination law, among them: its impact on corporations with 76 to 99 employees, on family-owned businesses with 21 to 50 employees, on “private national youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts,” and on the admittance practices of private elementary schools. Rep. Richard Bastien (R-Gardner) proposed embracing gender identity as a protected class, but also layering on protections based on height, weight, hair color and political party affiliation.

The study amendments were a dig at Democrats who have taken in recent years to inoculating divisive GOP proposals by sending them for studies that never get done. The amendments and the response by Democrats, led to a memorable Twitter exchange between Rep. Daniel Winslow (R-Norfolk) and Rep. Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg):

“Powerful speeches by [Rep.] Carl [Sciortino] as well as [Judiciary Committee] Chairman Gene O’Flaherty. Too bad the majority has limited debate,” tweeted Winslow.

“Could we expect powerful speeches on the 40+ studies filed by the minority? Should we study or act?” Benson replied, without a shred acknowledgement that it was Democrats who have masterminded the use of the study-amendment-as-bill-killer.

Meanwhile, to the transgender community, the ends justified the questionable means. Supporters burst into a ringing applause from the floor and in the House gallery when the House finally passed the bill. They drowned out a heavy gavel from Majority Leader Ron Mariano, who whipped the bill’s supporters into an ecstatic state by helping to limit debate and then sought to restore order to the House.

For most lawmakers, Twitter and email were noticeable obsessions this week, with many members burying their noses in their smart phones, texting and tweeting in between votes on the chamber floors.

The exception came Wednesday night, when the House slowed its frenzied pace to zoom in on Melissa’s Bill, a proposal to deny parole eligibility to those convicted of their third violent offense. Looking on from the gallery was Les Gosule, father of Melissa Gosule, the bill’s namesake, who was raped and murdered in 1999 by a violent offender with 27 convictions on his record.

For a little while, the smart phones went dark.

“You turned that tragedy into advocacy because you felt so strongly that our laws need to change so no family should ever have to endure what you did,” said Rep. Bradford Hill, peering up at Les Gosule, who pointed thankfully at Hill and then at Speaker Robert DeLeo.

So prominent was the crime debate and a fiery debate over a Congressional redistricting map in the Senate that the rubberstamping of an expanded gambling bill drew barely a whimper from lawmakers. The bill, now on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, is poised to be law early next week, with the administration providing a rare early signal that the governor intends to sign the bill into law.

In all, 24 bills made it to Patrick’s desk this week, including overhauls to the state pension system, a crackdown on human trafficking, a pair of proposals to support collective bargaining, and a bill prohibiting auto insurers from adjusting premiums based on the credit scores of their customers.

Two years ago at this time, Patrick – girding for a reelection battle – strode into the State House press room after lawmakers had packed their bags for the lengthy recess and demanded they return to act on an education, sentencing and fiscal bill. This time, the governor, who has a trade trip to South America planned in early December, appears content wait until the new year for a proposal he has described in equally urgent terms: a health care system overhaul aimed at bringing cost escalation under control.

“The building is full of good intentions. We need action,” Patrick said a month ago. “We’ve had a bill pending for a year. We’ve been talking about and worrying about and fussing about this issue for a long time and we need action. The Legislature has been working very hard at the committee level on a bill. I’ve been briefed on where they are. They need to move it to the floor sooner rather than later, and we need to take this up.”

Senate President Therese Murray told the News Service this week that payment reform is on her 2012 agenda. Speaker DeLeo said the same is true in the House. Their timetable? No one is certain.

Murray also offered a revealing glimpse about an issue she hopes will not be on her agenda any longer.

“I don’t want to talk to you guys about gaming ever again,” she said playfully, an attempt to divorce herself from an issue that consumed a good deal of her tenure as president. The era of the Gaming Commission, and executive branch oversight, is about to begin.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gambling, pension, trafficking, transgender protection, collective bargaining and crime. Many years’ worth of legislating gets crammed into 48 hours.

GLOBEWALKING: He hasn’t earned the “embattled” label yet, but Lt. Gov. Tim Murray saw his month turn from dour to dismal, courtesy of the Boston Globe, which provided compelling reporting to demonstrate that while he was busy Timwalking, his cell phone was buzzing, and a certain Chelsea Housing Authority director was on the other line. The official, Michael McLaughlin, is under fire for lying about his compensation while running the authority, and according to the Globe, he and Murray talked on the phone 80 times over the last seven months, including right after he had received Globe inquiries about his salary. But the Globe proved that its bullseye is a bipartisan one, as well, running lead stories to show that senior aides to Mitt Romney purchased – for 65 bucks – and expunged their hard drives before they left Massachusetts. It was a double-coup for the paper of record.

WHILE NO ONE WAS WATCHING: The Governor’s Council, the only elected body with the power to approve lifetime appointments to $120,000-a-year judgeships, decided to send a message this week to the nominees and witnesses that come before it. By a unanimous vote with two abstentions, councilors voted to demand that those testifying before the council do so under oath. “This is about holding people to a higher standard and trying to ensure the integrity of the judicial confirmation process,” said Councilor Jennie Caissie, an Oxford Republican, who offered the motion. “We have a duty to the people of Massachusetts to insist on this higher standard.” Unclear is under what legal authority the council would compel sworn testimony.

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