State House News Service

State House Roundup: Gavels Come In All Sizes

BOSTON — Sen. Stephen Brewer served notice this week that he plans to end his career on Beacon Hill wielding a big stick.

The unemployment rate was announced as 6 percent in April, raising the curtain on Act III of the annual state budget process set to begin next week in the Senate.

Brewer took the lid off the Senate leadership’s $36.25 billion spending plan for fiscal 2015, a budget that like the House’s prioritizes new spending on early education, substance abuse prevention and child welfare. The new investments in drug prevention dovetailed with an initiative that passed the Senate this week expanding access to treatment and insurance coverage for addicts.

Brewer, who is overseeing his final budget before he retires, found himself lavished with plaudits from his Ways and Means colleagues that he found a bit “embarrassing,” though not totally unappreciated. “Calling hours for Steve Brewer will be from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.,” the senator joked after the cameras were turned off.

But Brewer still has a few more chapters to write in his legislative career, and it starts with sifting through the 948 amendments filed to his Senate budget bill, including Sen. Brian Joyce’s gambit to tax medical marijuana.

“This is the best budget I’ve worked on in a recovery economy,” said Brewer, adding, “It does present a different set of challenges than a hemorrhaging economy.” The most notable challenge would be where to spend growing revenues that are sizable at $1.7 billion, but still not enough to appease everyone.

The Senate budget is the last chance for advocates and lawmakers to insert priorities for consideration during negotiations with the House, and those seeking the Brewer blessing should be forewarned that he carries a big gavel, quite literally. He bought it at the Brimfield flea market, and busted it out for show on Wednesday.

A smaller gavel was being used in federal district court this week as the trial of former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and his deputies continued with the prosecution calling witnesses, including a judge, to corroborate the rigged hiring system O’Brien used to reward applicants recommended by the politically connected.

The Legislature this week advanced two major bills, including an election law reform proposal that would bring early voting to Massachusetts starting in 2016 for every biennial state general election.

The compromise bill also authorizes 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote before they come of age and directs Secretary of State William Galvin to build a secure portal for adults to register online. The reforms are intended to spur increased participation in the electoral process, particularly among youth, but lawmakers weren’t quite ready to embrace same-day voter registration, which was left on the cutting room floor for a new task force to study further.

The second bill nearing the governor’s desk is a $144 million mid-year spending bill notable for both what it funded and what it set the stage for next week. Included in the budget bill is $27.6 million to fully fund reimbursements to local school districts for the students who enroll in charters.

Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey told members that the charter money was proof of House leadership’s commitment to the reimbursement program, which turned out to be a precursor to the House readying a bill for next week to lift the cap on charter school enrollment.

“Certainly I think for people who are concerned about the impact of charter schools having this fully funded should alleviate the some of the criticism we’ve heard,” Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch said.

Patrick is expected to sign both the election bill and the budget bill before he leaves for Israel and the United Arab Emirates in a little over a week for yet another international trade mission, logging enough air miles that comparisons between the Democrat and former Gov. Mitt Romney are growing more and more frequent.

“I think one difference between the travel I’ve done and that my predecessor has done is that the travel I do is on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and it has consistently been and we have the results to show for it,” Patrick said, before leaving the next day for Washington D.C. to commemorate Brown v. Board of Education.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker tried to turn an otherwise headache-inducing week around on Thursday when he released a video of him and his brother reminiscing about the night Alex Baker told Charlie he was gay. “No big deal,” the governor hopeful responded.

Alex Baker has now been married for a decade, and his brother Charlie Baker hopes the video, released two days before the 10th anniversary of the legalization of gay in marriage in Massachusetts, will send a clear and strong message to moderate Democrat and independents: He’s not your typical Republican.

The video, for at least for a day or two, gave people something to talk about other than the murky swamp of pay-to-play politics that Baker has been trying to trudge out of since it was first reported by the tech website PandoDaily that a Chris Christie-controlled New Jersey pension fund invested $15 million in the venture capital firm Baker worked with between gubernatorial campaigns. The investment came months after Baker gave $10,000 to the Garden State governor.

Baker insists he donated to Christie because the two are pals and that he was on the up-and-up because he didn’t actually work for General Catalyst – the Cambridge venture firm – but was an executive in residence.

Campaign finance filings tell a more complicated story, and candidate for governor Martha Coakley, who also happens to be the attorney general, called for the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate.

Republicans, however, continue to see Baker as their best chance at winning back the Corner Office, which is why over the weekend the state committee will consider authorizing the party to spend money on Baker’s behalf immediately despite his new primary opponent, Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher.

A strong top of the ticket will be critical to any GOP hopes for winning down ballot races, an outcome House Leader Brad Jones learned this week can be both a blessing and a curse. The last significant gains for the GOP came in 2010 when over a dozen new Republicans arrived as reinforcements.

Two of the those sophomore lawmakers – Rep. Jim Lyons and Rep. Marc Lombardo – officially turned on Jones this week, calling for his removal as House minority leader as they questioned his bonafides as a reliable foil to the Democrats’ agenda.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Senate leaders show their hand for fiscal 2015 budget.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We have to compete with those damn conservative Republican socialist liquor stores up in New Hampshire.” – Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini on why local officials are toasting to Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to lift the state limits on liquor licenses.

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