State House News Service

State House Roundup: Time To Make A Stand

THE STATE HOUSE — As the post-election glow for Beacon Hill Democrats faded, Gov. Deval Patrick is finding that a beleaguered opposition party can cause headaches even after a mid-term that left them weaker than before.

Budget woes and tax policy preparations – the gas tax all but a forgotten notion at this point in Patrick’s mind – took a backseat this week to the shaping of the governor’s inner circle and the fortitude of House Republicans afforded a modicum of control over the Beacon Hill agenda once every two years.

And former Treasurer Tim Cahill took the stand in his own defense, the final witness called in a month-long trial about the blurring of campaign and official duties. Jurors were treated to stories of campaign aides fearful of falling into a (Janet) Wu-trap and heard from a treasurer facing jail time and adamant that in those final campaign days of 2010 his only concern was protecting the Lottery.

The GOP stood ready this week to delay emergency funding requested by the governor to begin dealing with the legal costs of processing thousands of compromised drug cases, almost certainly pushing the issue off until January when the Legislature formally reconvenes and the Democratic leadership can once again exert its will.

And while reports of Tom Finneran’s immunity deal with prosecutors stoked probation indictment unease, the unexpected death of Rep. Joyce Spiliotis from a cancer diagnosis she kept secret from even her carpool-mate, Rep. Brad Hill, added to the souring holiday mood around the capitol.

With two years to go, Patrick turned this week to Brendan Ryan, his communications director, to take over as chief of staff when Mo Cowan leaves in January to return to the private sector. Loyalty gets rewarded. After starting with Patrick when he was about 24, Ryan takes control of ship headed for choppy waters with mid-year budget cuts, public health and safety crises, a looming fight over taxes and a legacy to protect piling up on his new desk.

With leadership in flux, Republican leaders asked why the Legislature should silently sign over a $30 million check to an administration at least partially responsible for the drug lab debacle they now need to pay for? “Difficult, if not impossible,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said, handicapping the odds of mid-year budget bill advancing in December when one lawmaker can block any legislation.

Rep. Brad Jones said he was waiting for the same olive branch Patrick had spent months on the campaign trail urging Congress and the president to accept: “The governor met with the Democratic leadership. He’s never reached out to me in any substantive way to talk about this issue and I’m quite confident as presented the Republican caucus would have issues with it.”

Not unrelated, Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby’s impressive six-year run atop the state’s largest agency appeared to be imperiled. The only remaining Cabinet member from Patrick’s first days in office, the physician-turned-bureaucrat found herself on the wrong side of the castle gates this week as the Department of Public Health’s travails finally winded their way to her doorstep.

Bigby’s testimony before three House committees about the crime lab and meningitis woes plaguing the administration left Republicans, and maybe some Democrats, uncomforted. “Desperately in need of new leadership” was how Jones described the executive agency, softening the attack by suggesting his caucus held their fire for months waiting for answers that never materialized and did not come to the decision lightly.

Patrick said Bigby still enjoyed his support, but Bigby has never been able to endear herself personally to lawmakers. Rep. William Straus, a Democrat, noted Bigby’s reputation for being “not a warm and fuzzy person,” but said she has done her job well.

A flurry of emails filled reporters’ inboxes from people in the health and human services field lauding Bigby’s leadership. Even her former patient Thomas Menino weighed in. But at the end of the day there were no assurances that Bigby would be around for long, especially considering how Patrick has asked his entire Cabinet to assess whether they’re ready to re-up for another two-year sprint.

“I’m working hard to do my job every day and I serve at the pleasure of the governor. I love my job and I love working for him,” Bigby said as she left a Cabinet meeting the day after calls for her resignation.

Patrick had his own problems, admitting on the radio that the hiring of former highway safety director Sheila Burgess made his administration look “ridiculous” in light of her shoddy history of speeding and avoiding police. But his explanation that Burgess’s hiring records had been “destroyed” in the normal course of business had critics questioning what sounded like a convenient attempt to try to turn the page.

Sen. Robert Hedlund had an interesting take on both Burgess and the 3 percent raises handed out by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray to legislative staff. Aides have not had a raise in four years and leaders said the financial rewards were well deserved and would be paid for within the existing House and Senate budgets.

Hedlund said that unlike in Congress where members are given fixed budgets for their staffs, pay on Beacon Hill can vary widely from staffers to staffer. “The way we handle pay needs to be reformed,” he said during an appearance on New England Cable News.

Consensus says the way the state should pay for transportation infrastructure also needs to be reformed.

Patrick said there is no “appetite” and he’s not that interested anymore in increasing the gas tax, looking instead to a menu of other unspecified options for revenue. Unions and transit rider advocacy groups this week called for a payroll tax on businesses for higher income earners in their employ. Patrick said he had not given that idea any thought.

Meanwhile, Tarr had a simple, one-word answer for a potential new payroll tax – “No” – and Hedlund had a message for anyone beating the revenue drum.

“You can’t just feed a junkie more heroin. You have to fix the spending side,” Hedlund said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The post-election lull gave way to an avalanche of troubling news on the home front for a short-time governor.

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