State House News Service

State House Roundup: Capitol Vacancy

BOSTON — Massachusetts was an arena for the political elite in mid-August, with hotels, beaches and golf courses playing host to movers, shakers and speech-makers, almost none of whom set foot in the State House.

The real action was in the South Boston Seaport where national Republicans gathered to carry out party business, and on Martha’s Vineyard, where the president and his family summered. Just ask Gov. Deval Patrick. Like most of his colleagues in the Legislature, Patrick has steered clear of Beacon Hill since late July, and he did not enter the building this week. He cancelled a meeting of the Governor’s Council scheduled for noon Wednesday. That evening, his aides disclosed Thursday, he was at the State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury, dining with the president of the United States and others.

Patrick aides chalked up the meeting cancellation to an unspecified scheduling conflict. Probably just as well. The last time Patrick helmed a meeting of the eight-member elected council, they voted 4-4, rejecting the governor’s nominee for a Roxbury District Court appointment.

President Barack Obama gave a lengthy press conference last Friday afternoon, prompting one White House reporter to wryly tell him, “I appreciate you making it a slow news week.” This week POTUS set the pace for the press on Monday, permitting the pool of journalists who would be trailing him around the Vineyard for the week to watch him putt. The result? A golf ball that veered left of the hole and a president with one leg raised high in the contortion of missed opportunity and khaki shorts.

The world events requiring the president’s attention do not stop at the sun, surf and sod of his preferred vacation spot, so it was from his rented home in Chilmark that Obama addressed the ongoing bloodshed between the authorities and protestors in Egypt, announcing the U.S. is cancelling joint military exercises.

Back in South Boston on Monday the jury was in for James “Whitey” Bulger, finding the longtime crime boss guilty on 31 of 32 counts, and reporting that the federal prosecutors had proved the one-time Santa Monica fugitive participated in 11 murders, out of 19, during his time atop Boston’s underworld.

The world of Boston sports, already wracked by murder and mayhem, was beset with another tragedy, as Jared Remy, the son of longtime Red Sox play-by-play announcer Jerry Remy, was accused of stabbing his girlfriend to death Thursday night after being released on personal recognizance. The Boston Marathon bombing and murder accusations against former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez have cast a pall over the local sports scene – one somewhat lifted by the reopening of Forum, on Boylston Street Thursday. Tighter security at the Patriots pre-season opener Friday was another sign of the new normal.

Meanwhile, even the drudgework of drafting and passing laws could take place outside the House and Senate chambers, as groups seeking repeals of two tax provisions within the $500 million tax bill plan to make their case directly to voters. If repeals of an inflation-adjustment in the gas tax and the application of the sales tax to computer services make it onto the ballot, they would coincide with the selection of the next governor and state treasurer in 2014, as Republicans seek to make gains in the deep blue Bay State. The unemployment rate also ticked up to 7.2 percent in July, a tick above Florida’s jobless rate and two ticks below the national rate.

Lawmaking is big business for some, including former Senate President Robert Travaglini whose lobbying firm hooked up with former Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees earlier this summer. From January through June, lobbyists were paid roughly $48.9 million, according to preliminary numbers from the Secretary of State’s office. That’s a slight dip from the $52.5 million in the same period last year, when the major tax bill didn’t crowd out other legislative efforts. The amount spent on meals, entertainment and campaign contributions was also down, but there’s still the second half of 2013 ahead.

Making an about-face as she strives for a seat in Congress, Sen. Karen Spilka announced Wednesday she would file a bill to repeal the tech tax. In July, Spilka voted against a Republican amendment to the $500 million tax package that would have removed the computer services tax. Democratic Sens. Tom Kennedy, Kathleen O’Connor Ives, Marc Pacheco and James Timilty broke ranks and joined the Republicans in their effort to strike the tax from the legislation.

A repeal would obviate the strenuous work undertaken by the Department of Revenue to refine the legislation into language digestible to the businesses affected. It would also slash a $161 million hole in the state’s new investments in transportation and budget priorities, essentially rolling back a big chunk of the Legislature’s work product over the first half of 2013.

Thus, as the days grow shorter and autumn’s finger beckons, legislators can look on with dread at a potential return to debates and votes on taxes. In other words, happy days for the Grand Old Party gathered on the South Boston waterfront.

“Our best friend here is the Democratic Legislature in Massachusetts,” said Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman.

And there’s Charlie Baker waiting in the wings, reportedly poised for another campaign for the Corner Office. The entrepreneur in residence and candidate in waiting didn’t talk at the RNC, while the two other Republicans discussed as statewide contenders held events, albeit closed-press. Gabriel Gomez arrived for his evening speech with plans to participate in a 200-mile race in New Hampshire and without the bomber jacket so ubiquitous during his U.S. Senate campaign. Scott Brown, who held a marquee event at Friendly Fenway, hasn’t ruled out a run of a more political nature in New Hampshire or Massachusetts.

In recent bouts for the Senate, Democrats have invoked Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a cudgel, and Brown and Gomez have likewise distanced themselves from the national party.

The size of the Republican contingent in the 40-member state Senate was on full display Wednesday night, as the three remaining R’s sat in on Broadside, guest-hosted by Joe Battenfeld, who spent much of the interview riffing on their diminished numbers, as Sen. Michael Knapik recently decamped for a gig about 100 miles closer to his Westfield home.

“Do you need a foursome now for golf or anything when you go out? You need an extra?” Battenfeld asked.

“Well the foursome now is the taxpayers of the Commonwealth, which more often than not agree with us, Joe. They’re happy to be part of the caucus whenever we need them,” said Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, abreast his two colleagues Sens. Robert Hedlund and Richard Ross. Hedlund doesn’t golf, he said. The “three amigos” need to stand as one to force a roll call, Hedlund mentioned, though he found some silver, or ruby, lining, saying, “We haven’t approached Hawaii status yet, where there’s only one Republican.”

The RNC event at the Westin Boston Waterfront was held next door to the BCEC, where Mitt Romney spent part of a November night last year drafting and then delivering a concession speech. The RNC event was less about heralding candidates, or even linking them with funders, and more about nuts-and-bolts party business, Kaufman said.

Tell Carole Fiola about the dog days of summer, or Dan Cullinane, or Dan Donohue, three Democrats who won contested special election primaries for state rep in Fall River, Boston and Worcester on Tuesday. Republicans David Steinhof and Carol Claros had an easier go in the primary, running unopposed and earning a space on the general election ballot.

The summer idyll will not last, and while grasshoppers bask in the August sun and the president practices his putts, the diligent look ahead to the crisp days of autumn. The fall harvest could reap fruits of both a legislative and political nature, as the 12 Boston mayoral candidates will be whittled to two in the Sept. 24 preliminary. Rep. Hank Naughton plans to unveil gun legislation and as the leaves shift color, he will shift gears into a campaign for lieutenant governor. Watch out, Mike Lake and Steve Kerrigan, who are also seeking the #2. Sen. Dan Wolf, no stranger to the Bay State’s favorite vacation spots, will have to make up his mind about his Senate seat, his gubernatorial campaign, and his airline. Or maybe he can convince the Ethics Commission that its ultimatum is a few knots short of a cruising speed. A spokesman said he has until Sept. 2. Along with the migratory birds headed south for the winter, the fall will bring with it a welfare discussion in the House and work in the Public Service Committee on Other Post Employment Benefits reform.

Oh, why can’t the summer last forever?

STORY OF THE WEEK: Hotels and summer cottages packed with national pols and operatives; vacancy sign hangs in front of State House.

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