State House News Service

State House Roundup: Turkish Twist

Two years of hearings, rallies and coffee klatches have all been leading up this, a dizzying sprint to the end of the month when leaders are just hoping they’ve left enough time to finish what they’ve started … and the floor doesn’t fall out beneath them.

If you’re Bob DeLeo, the pressure is rising during the dog days of July.

There’s the pile of unfinished legislative priorities awaiting attention with just three weeks left to finish major business. But that thicket is standard fare, which is not the case with the goings on down at One Courthouse Way.

At the federal courthouse, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office have pulled in the Winthrop Democrat’s top deputies, placing them on the witness stand one after another as they attempt to prove his office was at the center of a job-rigging conspiracy designed to give the probation department, and his political career, an edge.

As his reputation was being sullied DeLeo on Wednesday, hump day, made a bid to turn things around. Not only did he steer a controversial gun bill through the House with a convincing majority vote, but he also let loose on his governmental counterparts in the office of Carmen Ortiz, who by the way opted against responding.

Suggesting that prosecutors are casting “inaccurate and inflammatory” — even “scurrilous” — accusations around the courtroom, DeLeo flatly denied trading jobs for votes in his bid to become speaker or doing any favors for the probation department that were motivated by his own political ambition. And on Friday, he ripped his former budget chief, Charley Murphy, for testimony in which he said DeLeo had directed him not to cut the probation department budget, suggesting his testimony was “not only illogical, it was untruthful.”

DeLeo complained this week about being unable to defend himself because he is not a party to trial proceedings, but after being silent for weeks he proved it really wasn’t that hard. Not eager to make any more enemies, DeLeo pushed through a substantially revised gun law reform bill that even had the local chapter of the NRA jumping off his back and declaring themselves “neutral.”

Gun Owners Action League director Jim Wallace actually called the bill a “victory for the 2nd amendment,” which as you might imagine had Democrats wandering the halls wondering if the capitol had tipped off its axis – to their advantage.

Giving the speaker a run for his money for both best and worst week was none other than Charles Duane Baker.

The Republican gubernatorial frontrunner thought he’d gin up a bit of good publicity by visiting the State House press corps on Beacon Hill to talk up legislation expanding options for parents by lifting the cap on charter school enrollment in poorly performing school districts like Boston.

Long before he ever got to talk about charter schools, however, Baker said three words in connection with the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision that could haunt him through November: “It doesn’t matter.”

Baker, who understands the perils of running as a Republican in Massachusetts and getting swept up in national hot button issues, was suggesting simply that his opinion doesn’t matter. Massachusetts women, he said, would continue to be protected by state laws that require employers to cover health insurance for contraception, and he was happy about that. Except that wasn’t quite accurate.

Buried under an avalanche of press releases from his potential Democratic rivals, interest groups and even candidates running for different offices, Baker admitted he “misspoke” and vowed to fight to protect women’s access to health care as governor.

Baker was OK with being bludgeoned from the right over his support for House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s gun control bill, but he couldn’t risk alienating the Democrats and independents he’s hoping to win over by inviting a “war on women” narrative to the campaign.

So on Friday, he went so far as to call for an additional $300,000 to be added to the state budget so the Department of Public Health could provide contraceptive health services to women working for companies with faith-based leadership that are self-insured and choose not to provide contraception coverage. It was a little too late, but the sentiment was there.

Just how much damage Baker did to himself remains to be seen, but a new Boston Globe poll out Friday showed the Republican closing the gap with his most formidable Democratic rival, Attorney General Martha Coakley. While Coakley continues to run laps around the other two Democrats in the race, her lead over Baker has shrunk to 5 points.

Baker’s contraception funding proposal was a little too late because the same morning he suggested it, Patrick was busy inking a $36.5 billion budget for fiscal 2015, and giving lawmakers $16.1 million in vetoes – a miniscule amount in the scheme of the budget – to think about before July 31.

Patrick largely resisted the urge to get nostalgic after he put his name to the eighth and final state budget he will sign as governor. “I never would have guessed eight years ago that there was poignance around signing a budget,” Patrick said.

But after expressing pride in what was accomplished over his tenure to increase funding for education in the face of a global recession, his mind drifted to those early days on the campaign trail in 2006 before his name was on the list of every national pundit’s 2016 presidential possibility list.

“One of the things probably most frustrating….,” he started, was his administration’s inability to make more progress on reducing property taxes.

“I’ve appreciated all along that in order for that to happen, we were going to have to give more tools to cities and towns to cut their costs, and we have done that, the municipal health reform being just one example, and to deliver more resources,” Patrick said. “But there are decisions that have to be made at the local level around those tax rates and I think that story is mixed.”

Patrick also filed a budget proposal to wrap up fiscal year 2014, and in it asked for the ability to reduce local aid and spending for fiscal 2015 across all state agencies and constitutional offices, except the Legislature and the Judiciary, if the Executive Office of Administration and Finance determines budgeted revenues are falling short or unexpected expenses require making room in the budget for additional spending requests.

A lot has changed since Patrick took office in 2007, not the least of which is the size of the state budget. At $36.5 billion, the state is collecting and spending about $10 billion more a year – a large number that the administration was eager to contextualize by pointing how Patrick’s spending ways compared to his predecessors, Republicans no less. According the administration, the 3.6 percent average annual spending growth under Patrick stacks up well compared to the pre-Deval era when spending grew 4.9 percent over the eight years before the governor took office and 5.1 percent for the eight years before that.

The retrospectives on Patrick’s accomplishments and promises are sure to start soon enough, and those with long memories are sure to revisit his property tax pledge, as well as 1,000 new cops on the street, etc., etc.

The governor already has.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Emotions ride high as probation trial winds down.

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