State House News Service

State House Roundup: Shaken, Not Stirred

The rumble Bay Staters felt this week may have been beneath their feet, but with just over two weeks until Election Day candidates may have mistaken that unsettled feeling for nerves with time running out to move the needle in their direction.

Unless you count the news that Big Red is coming back to town, the tremor that struck in Maine and rattled the Bay State hours before former Gov. Mitt Romney and President Obama squared off on Tuesday shook up little more than the silverware.

The last time an earthquake of any significance shook Massachusetts was a little over a year ago when a Virginia-based tremor jostled the chandeliers on Beacon Hill, and the details of an expanded casino gambling law leaked to the media.

This time, the only news that will be linked in time to the mini-quake will be the semi-retirement of U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf, the bankruptcy plans of car battery manufacturer A123 despite a state clean energy loan, and former Gov. William Weld’s announcement that he’s leaving the Empire State and heading back to Cambridge.

Weld, who bolted Massachusetts for a law job in New York after his ambassadorship to Mexico didn’t pan out, has continued to maintain a presence in Massachusetts politics, and amplified it of late, since his days of patrolling Beacon Hill. But his physical relocation predictably gave rise to speculation that the tall, free-speaking original Weld Republican may not be done with politics himself.

Weld is returning to Boston to join Mintz Levin and the law firm’s government relations office ML Strategies, but with the binder full of Democrats already bulging in the event that Sen. John Kerry jumps for the State Department, the GOP could use a contender like Weld, assuming he’s still interested in the job he once sought.

As Senate President Therese Murray, her challenger Tom Keyes, U.S. Rep. John Tierney and Republican Richard Tisei, and Rep. Tim Toomey and his challengers joined the ranks of candidates who engaged in spirited debates this week, the latest jobs report – the last before the election – had a little bit for everyone, including the economic cynics and those who find optimism even in rising unemployment.

On the one hand, the unemployment rate ticked up for the third straight month to 6.5 percent in September, but the economy added 5,100 jobs. Find it troubling that 225,400, or 6,600 more people than in August, are unemployed? Well, the labor force also grew by 13,000. That’s an indication that perhaps people are more confident about finding work and starting to look again.

“I think what’s happening is we’re adding jobs. The economy is growing. We are definitely moving in the right direction,” Gov. Deval Patrick said.

Or for a different take: “The residents of the Commonwealth do not need more of the number games that the Patrick administration routinely relies on to falsely depict economic growth. What they need is lower taxes, less wasteful spending and a real plan for Massachusetts’ job creators,” House Minority Leader Brad Jones said.

Patrick started his week on a much higher note, becoming the first patient to transmit his medical records electronically from one provider to another over a new secure system developed by the state with money from the Obama administration.

From there it was on to Hempstead, New York and the second presidential debate. Obama came ready to play and Romney sparked a fact-checking free-for-all at home in Boston over his comment about seeking out “binders full of women” to bring gender diversity to his Cabinet. By week’s end, however, the polls had hardly moved.

Patrick’s trip to Hofstra for the debate came after a day that included seven public events, including a stop in Ashland for a Tom Sannicandro fundraiser less than three hours before Patrick was due in Long Island.

“First thing’s first. I gotta do my day job first,” Patrick said Tuesday morning, still apparently sensitive to the rising din of criticism over his out-of-state travels that seemed to be at least one reason the governor paid an impromptu visit to the State House press corps’ 4th floor den on Monday.

That day job includes reviving talks with Mashpee Wampanoags for a tribal gaming compact rejected by the feds, coping with the ongoing fallout from the state drug lab scandal and national outbreak of fungal meningitis, deciding on his picks to lead a new Health Policy Commission before Nov. 5 and navigating a tenuous revenue outlook for the next nine months.

With tax collection trending about $100 million below estimates, Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez this week announced that the administration would not revise its projections with a move that would have triggered immediate budget cuts.

Instead, the administration imposed a cap on full-time equivalent employees at current levels as it shifts into wait-and-see mode with the potential looming for a growth-triggered income tax reduction to 5.2 on Jan. 1.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, even from his vacation in Italy, didn’t make anyone feel any better about the budgetary outlook with his office announcing it would seek $15 million from the state to offset police and other costs associated with the release of prisoners due to the mishandling of evidence at a state drug lab.

The proponents of Question One on the ballot dealing with access to auto repair information had politicians feeling equally uncertain about the future as the coalition that pushed a compromise bill in July and promised to fight against the question together fractured.

After several groups peeled away from the deal, the Right to Repair Committee announced that it would no longer urge voters to skip the question, instead calling for a yes vote and throwing up in the air the carefully crafted compromise on a complicated issue that even lawmakers have admitted to not understanding.

Sorting through the Right to Repair mess after the election will be one task for the now dormant Legislature that curiously sprang to life this week when the House decided to appoint a conference committee to start negotiating a bill with the Senate extending the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse.

The lame-duck conference committee is a rare breed, its prospects for success during an informal session as unclear as the rationale for moving forward now. Whether lawmakers can get unanimous consent to pass a bill this year is an open question. But hey, it’s a full-time Legislature and with the session agenda clear through December, maybe it’s a good time to make some headway on the issue.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Big Red’s back, the state’s largest employer (the state) has imposed an immediate hiring cap, and Right to Repair got more confusing than ever.

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