State House Roundup: A Spoonful Of Sugar
BOSTON — All Gov. Deval Patrick needed this week was an umbrella.
Playing Mary Poppins to Transportation Secretary Richard Davey’s upcoming role as Nurse Ratched, the governor sweetened the tough medicine he will ask taxpayers to swallow in the coming weeks with a steady diet of reform proposals unfurled one at a time, day-after-day.
Patrick started with business friendly ideas: eliminating unnecessary regulation, blocking a $500 million unemployment insurance rate hike, and cracking down on municipal employees who exploit loopholes to pad their salaries and pensions with unemployment benefits.
Asked by WBZ’s Jon Keller whether his week was the embodiment of the “reform before revenue” slogan popular on Beacon Hill in recent years, Patrick said, “Next week isn’t all about revenue, but it’s no surprise that we’re going to have a transportation plan and that plan is going to require some additional revenue.”
Patrick confirmed that on Monday he will offer a “vision for transportation.” “I am hoping we can spend some time as a Commonwealth talking about that vision and what we want to do and not do and then we’ll come on soon thereafter with a revenue proposal,” Patrick said.
In the meantime, feast on this.
On Monday, Patrick kicked off “reform week,” as his handlers might have liked to call it, with his plans to eliminate nearly 300 business and environmental regulations that cost small businesses time filling out paperwork and offer little benefit. No pushback there.
The governor then shifted his focus to the unemployment insurance system, proposing legislation to freeze the rates businesses pay to cover benefits to unemployed workers. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have both signaled their support for this idea.
Patrick also announced plans to eliminate a provision in the 2006 health care access law that penalizes employers who don’t make a “fair” contribution to their employees’ health care, because it will be duplicated by a similar program starting in 2014 as part of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Wednesday brought news of a bill from the governor’s office to stop municipal employees from double-dipping into the unemployment benefit funds of cities and towns, closing loopholes that have allowed bus drivers to collect benefits during school vacations and retired cops to file for unemployment when laid off from their part-time service to their communities. The Herald, which has written about some abuses, cheered and took a victory lap.
The end of the week, however, was reserved for the more controversial of his proposals, starting on Thursday with the announcement of a plan to consolidate the state’s 240 local housing authorities into six regional boards, stomping on local turf and eliciting predictable blowback from the local housing officials who stand lose their jobs.
Legislative leaders were largely quiet on the public housing front, with Patrick saying they promised him they would keep an open mind, and Rep. Kevin Honan, a Boston Democrat and long-time House point person on housing issues, suggesting the legislative vetting could be a “lengthy process.”
The housing reforms were prompted by the transgressions of former Chelsea housing director Michael McLaughlin, whose political ties to Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray has damaged his brand. Murray was nowhere near the podium with Patrick for announcement, but the governor said it was only other meetings that kept him away, and assured that Murray participated in the drafting of the plan.
Finally, Patrick said he would attempt to codify the recommendations of a commission to shrink the unfunded liability for state and municipal retiree health benefits by asking employees to work longer and put in more years of service to qualify.
Holding daily press conferences means fielding the inevitable “off-topic” questions, and without fail the conversation this week found its way back to Barney Frank and his public lobbying for the interim Senate appointment Patrick will make if John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state.
The governor took most the repetitive questions in stride, swatting aside specific queries about his former chief of staff Mo Cowan, former budget secretary Jay Gonzalez and just about anyone else you can think of.
He got a particular chuckle, however, out of the questions about Frank as progressive groups began rallying behind the idea of the cantankerous Democrat returning to Capitol Hill, if only for a few months. “Relax,” Patrick advised, also noting that,” This is not the main event.” Actually, it was the main event back in 2009 when Democrats did somersaults to change state law and ensure that Patrick could name Paul Kirk to cast a series of key votes. But the point about the main, main event is well taken, as Scott Brown and Martha Coakley could attest to.
The quadrennial race for governor is still two years off, but still this week the 2014 elections generated as much, if not more, buzz than the looming special Senate election, from which Sen. Benjamin Downing removed his name.
Treasurer Grossman lit the wick on Sunday when he told WCVB TV he was now “leaning strongly” toward running, an upgrade from giving it serious consideration. Grossman’s latest characterization of his plans caused Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray to say he didn’t care what anybody else did, and would make his decision in due time.
Dr. Don Berwick paid a courtesy call to Murray in his office just to let him know he was also strongly considering running for governor.
Berwick, who ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Obama for a time and has advised Patrick and lawmakers on health care reform, may not be well known to voters, but he still probably ranks higher on the recognition chart than the man who officially became the first gubernatorial candidate of 2014: former Wellesley selectman Dr. Joseph Avellone.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Patrick flashes some shiny ideas before lawmakers before next week’s talk turns to taxes.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I just got out on Annie Dookhan, and I ain’t going back to jail.” – Jonathan Vaughan, after being arrested in a Chelsea McDonalds for drinking Natty Ice in public. Police found eight bags of suspected crack cocaine in his possession.