State House News Service

State House Roundup: The Company They Keep

BOSTON — Either Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative leaders are traveling in different circles these days, or it just seems that way.

To hear the governor tell it, the citizens he talks to – some of whom are still hurting from the recession – want public school programs for their toddlers. They want subways that run late at night, buses that run on weekends and trains that don’t break down and can take them all the way to Fall River. And they’re willing to pay a little more for it.

Lawmakers are having trouble finding those people. It’s possible they’re still buried under a pile of snow.

“We’re not feeling the ability terribly so much that everybody can dig even deeper, and quite honestly we hear from our constituents in that regard, so as we balance this, balance the spending and revenue, these are the challenges,” Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer told Patrick’s budget chief Glen Shor this week face-to-face.

At the first hearing on the governor’s budget, Shor described Patrick’s plan as one that reflects his “restlessness,” a symptom of a self-term-limited governor short on time and full of ambition. So it’s no surprise that the administration’s position is that big investments in education and transportation can’t wait.

The tricky part for Patrick so far has been convincing lawmakers, comfortably assured of reelection most cycles, that universal pre-K and South Coast rail can’t wait a few years until the gaming revenues start pouring in.

“Wouldn’t that be more prudent?” Sen. Michael Knapik asked, the implication from both Democrats and Republicans being that maybe just a little bit of new revenue now to plug the transportation gap will suffice.

For all the ink spilled on the governor’s plan to raise $1.9 billion in new taxes and invest those funds in education and transportation, the real debate probably doesn’t begin for another two months – mid-April. That’s when House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey will detail the House’s response to the governor’s tax reform proposal.

The clear signal this week at the budget hearing from Dempsey, Brewer and others – delivered in reluctant and sometimes defensive tones – was that Patrick may have overshot the runway.

Lest anyone think the Legislature is being unreasonable in its reluctance to accept any new taxes, Dempsey reminded that the House and Senate both approved a sales tax increase just four years ago to avoid carving chasms through budget line-items like public education that Patrick now wants to capitalize. New WBUR polling data also suggested the public is less than enthusiastic about the governor’s new tax-dependent budget plan, with 50 percent at least somewhat opposed.

But as good Democrats, the House and Senate leadership have given Patrick the time and space up until now to make his pitch to the public and members of the General Court. And Patrick used that opportunity this week to challenge lawmakers to muster the “political courage” necessary to embrace his vision and resist the “easy for short-term politics” option of just saying no. Patrick in another speech urged them to reach for their “inner giant.”

And then he jetted for Colombia, as representatives and senators prepared for a light week on Beacon Hill as schools, which lost a few days this week due to the blizzard, let out for February vacation.

Patrick left on Friday for a late-announced trade mission to South America, the third international job hunt of his second term and also his second visit to Latin America. He was joined for the first time by his wife Diane, and the couple plans to vacation for a few days in Florida when they return stateside on Wednesday.

So while Patrick bones up on his Spanish and Bob DeLeo and Terry Murray’s soldiers strategize on taxes next week, Congressional hopefuls on the Republican side of the aisle are looking at their last full week gathering nomination signatures if they’re to have a chance of winning John Kerry’s Senate seat.

While Congressman Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch negotiated a new “People’s Pledge” to limit outside spending and bickered over when, where and how many times they would debate before April 30, would-be GOP candidates were still playing the will-I-or-won’t-I run game and fighting their image as the party-of-no candidates.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr took himself out of the running – unclear if his fear of flying had anything to do with the decision – and former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan came out of hiding to say he would run, but only if he can gather the 10,000 necessary signatures the old-fashioned way with volunteers, instead of paying a professional.

That leaves an on-the-fence Sean Bielat, who is considering testing the maxim that the third time’s the charm, to join the only declared candidates in the race Rep. Daniel Winslow and Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez.

Democrats, meanwhile, are loving the confusion in the Republican field as the party’s preferred candidate, Scott Brown, began his new gig on FOX offering up mostly recycled talking points about Chuck Hagel instead of trying to reclaim his desk on Capitol Hill.

Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh dubbed it the GOP’s own version of the soap opera “As the World Turns.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: The slow march on taxes.

SNOWTALITARIANISM: As Massachusetts shoveled out from underneath the Blizzard of 2013 early this week, the general cleanup effort from cities, towns, the state and utilities got mostly positive reviews – except from the customers who had to wait until Wednesday to get their power back. Gov. Deval Patrick, however, faced some criticism for his decision to ban road travel during the peak of the storm, a step untaken since Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1978. “Restricting our rights based on a weather forecast. Only in Massachusetts!” Tweeted Republican Rep. Jim Lyons. Former Rep. Steven Levy, of Marlborough, went further with a post on Facebook: “Just heard about this ban.. We have an idiot for a Governor… Jawohl mein Führer! Last time I looked, I still lived in America. Only in Massachusetts would they threaten up to a year in prison for driving, but go rape a child and you won’t see a day behind bars. Truly sad what’s happening to our country!” The governor’s office declined to comment on Levy’s German. Travel ban supporters said it helped keep the roads clear for emergency personnel and snow-clearing crews, while also potentially preventing motorists from becoming stranded.

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