State House Roundup: Opening Act
BOSTON — The ritualistic return to Beacon Hill of lawmakers new and old – some looking tanner and slimmer – signaled the start of a new session this week with an agenda already piled high and one notable pol who just got out of the game but is looking to get back in.
Sandwiched around the New Year’s holiday, legislators wrapped up one two-year session and began another, reconvening under the Dome mid-week to celebrate their swearings-in with family and friends.
The real action, however, bookended an otherwise well-scripted week of ceremonial duties for the governor and lawmakers, starting with the closing of the 2011-2012 legislative session on Monday and finishing with a Friday flourish as Patrick emptied his press release cupboard.
The end-of-session scramble sent a flurry of last-minute bills to the governor and had lawmakers wondering until 5 p.m. if they might need to reschedule their New Year’s Eve plans. The House and Senate, however, held back on any final bombshells they might have been tempted to unload, relegating bills that may have had an outside chance to the next Legislature that includes 16 new House members and three new Senators.
Oaths of office in Boston and Washington – Elizabeth Warren and Joe Kennedy III are now members of Congress -dominated the middle of the week, along with a thirteenth-hour deal to avert part of the “fiscal cliff” and run away from another precipice – decisions about long-term spending cuts were deferred to the spring. But Friday brought with it an onslaught of announcements from Gov. Deval Patrick, not all of which were planned.
Barney Frank, just one day after his tenure in the House of Representatives formally came to an end, went on national TV and told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough that he had changed his mind, phoned the governor and told him he wanted to be the interim Senate appointee to replace Sen. John Kerry.
“A month ago, or a few weeks ago, I said I wasn’t interested. It was kind of like you’re about to graduate, and they said, ‘You got to go to summer school.’ But the (fiscal cliff) deal now means that February, March and April are going to be among the most important months in American financial history,” Frank said.
The Newton Democrat is not the only one who has called Patrick to ask for the appointment, but he is the only one to talk about it publicly, a fact Patrick seemed to find endlessly amusing on Friday as he was forced to admit Frank was on “the list.”
Asked whether he would have preferred their talk remain private, Patrick joked, “Does it matter in the case of Congressman Frank what I would have preferred?”
Irresistible to Frank, the outcome of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations presented a conundrum for former Sen. Scott Brown, and one that could follow him back out onto the campaign trail in a few weeks.
Before he left Capitol Hill, Brown cast a vote in favor of the deal that raised tax rates on upper-income earners, at once reaffirming and contradicting the major themes of his re-election campaign. On the one hand, Brown violated his pledge not to support higher taxes for anyone. In doing so, he held true to the bipartisan spirit of compromise that he said differentiated him from others politicians in Washington.
Brown has yet to declare his intentions if Kerry is confirmed, and yet he couldn’t help but take a swipe at Rep. Edward Markey on the radio when the opportunity presented itself, questioning why he sees every other member of the delegation on flights back to Boston except for Malden resident Markey, who also lives in Maryland.
Warren didn’t fare much better in her handling of the deal, refusing to say after she was sworn in whether she would have voted for the compromise crafted by Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama, while also criticizing its content.
The resolution on taxes gave many taxpayers and some on Beacon Hill a sliver of comfort, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray noted it did little to help budget writers prepare for what could still be a slashing of federal funding for the state this fiscal year and next.
“I’m glad that they took a vote, finally. But it was a disgraceful, disgraceful display, and I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying that but the people need to stand up and say we’ve had enough,” Murray said.
Patrick also waited until Friday to announce a week-long delay to his transportation financing plan, pharmacy oversight legislation, more changes to his inner circle of advisers, the nomination of his outgoing Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan to a lifetime appointment as a district court circuit judge, and the renomination of once-rejected judicial appointment.
Eager reporters barely knew where to start.
Pittsfield attorney Michael McCarthy’s renomination for a Southern Berkshire District Court judgeship was notable, at the very least, for the fact that he has already been rejected once before by the Governor’s Council, an eight-member panel that now has four new members.
On the lighter side, DeLeo and Murray were both re-elected to their leadership positions without challenge, using the occasion to lay out selective agendas for the coming year that were as predictable as they were noteworthy: gun violence, transportation financing, sex-offender registry reform.
Murray ticked off the biggest, and most overlooked, surprise priority when she put drinking and wastewater reform on the Senate’s agenda, calling it a “very pressing environmental issue” that happens to be on par, in terms of cost, with the breathlessly followed plans by all leaders to address long-term transportation funding needs.
The fact that both issues could cost as much as $20 billion each over the next 20 years should be noted now as lawmakers contemplate how they will react to Patrick’s revenue ideas, and whether they want to confine the conversation about taxes to transportation or reach for broader spending goals.
Republicans, meanwhile, wanted nothing to do with the idea of new taxes.
Rep. Marc Lombardo, now a second-term Republican from Billerica, said he was disappointed DeLeo did not pledge again not to raise taxes. “Not hearing that this year makes me worried about what the new year will bring. Now is not the time to be raising taxes. We have a $32 billion budget, so the way I see it we don’t have a revenue problem,” he said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Congress averts cliff dive, but contours of deal leave uncertainty and possibilities – for Barney Frank.