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State House Roundup: That's Quicksand, That Ain't Mud

Drying out from the St. Patrick's/Evacuation Day parade isn't supposed to take all week.

But there was the Commonwealth this week, dragging its Shop-Vac around its collective basement and brooming the water out of the garage. Something on the order of nearly a foot of rain fell on the capital over the three-day northeaster, the governor was photographed in Patagonia, MBTA track beds were washed out, and the state's water resources authority released up to 10 million gallons of raw sewage into Quincy Bay to prevent its overloaded equipment from exploding.

And when the waters had receded and the seventh seal was opened, turned out there still hadn't been enough to cleanse the memory of Sunday's bloodless political breakfast, which was notable in that it featured so many people who professionally crave the spotlight so painstakingly seeking to avoid doing anything remarkable. It was generally agreed that Attorney General Martha Coakley turned in the best performance - setting a new standard for self-effacement. Her competition was, this time, was underwhelming.

No one asked the Roundup, but its advice is to mic up the whole head table next year, try to restore some of the life to the event. Widely bemoaned is the intrusion of political correctness, but that genie ain't going back in the bottle. Truly lacking this year was the back-and-forth, the spontaneity. For now, the breakfast has become a bunch of pols reading scripts and holding up props prepared by other people. Virtually indistinguishable from most other days.

Taking a powder from the South Boston breakfast was GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Charles Baker, who instead opted for a smaller event in Scituate to which he'd committed long ago. Anyone searching for stark partisan stereotypes needed look no further than venues: an exclusive country club on the South Shore for the Republicans, Democrats gathered in a state-owned building, marked for expansion, that some eye suspiciously as a money pit.

Which is what Treasurer Timothy Cahill called the state's health care policy Tuesday, stepping out with a detailed assault on Gov. Deval Patrick and on Obamacare, which the unenrolled gubernatorial candidate warned would bankrupt the country within four years. It seemed a shrewd move by Cahill, shoring up his policy credentials in an area where he's been little more than a naysayer, layering the Patrick-as-big-spender storyline, and granting him national exposure on the virtual eve of the U.S. House's vote on the bill. Cahill, in turn, earned an elbow from Baker, who said Friday, "Tim's been the treasurer for seven years. Where's he been?"

Another acute lesson for Patrick in the challenges of running as an incumbent amid fiscal austerity and the echoes of your own grand promises: Your opponent gets to semi-ingenuously lump Medicaid in with the other more novel parts of the 2006 health care reform law and point out staggering increases in health care costs that are tying the budget to the ocean floor; Cahill held up charts showing health care spending ballooning from $6.3 to $10.4 billion the last six years. And then you have to play defense. Boosting enrollment in Medicaid, which accounted for about three-quarters of that growth, was a part of the 2006 law, just not the glitziest part.

You also have to disclose serious budget problems and defend against claims of fiscal irresponsibility, both of which are politically noxious endeavors, the first required by finance law, the second by the more frontier justice statutes of the campaign trail. The message of strong fiscal stewardship doesn't mesh well with news of a budget deficit nearing $300 million, coming near the bottom of the fiscal year, and probably requiring plugs from the residual savings amassed during a happier time.

It also sounds out of tune with the jingle, vital to Patrick's reelection message, which holds that the sun will come out tomorrow even if a little past lunchtime and may in fact already be peeking from behind the cumulonimbus, the economy is on the upswing, we're in better shape than everyone else.

The potentially $295 million hitch came as lawmakers prepare a thorough rewrite of the governor's fiscal 2011 spending blueprint. Privately, among political donors, Democratic lawmakers disparage Patrick's as little more than another piece of campaign lit, and House budget panel number-two Rep. Barbara L'Italien, the Andover Democrat, said her party's governor had published a document $1.2 billion out of whack.

In the Legislature's lone formal session of the week - punctuated, after all, by Evacuation Day commemorating the expulsion of the Brits from our fair city - the House took aim at school bullying, passing its own redraft of the Senate bill, although some members complained that the refusal to include certain enforcement mechanisms left the bill "toothless."

A conference committee on bullying joins what's quietly, and in perennially startling fashion, becoming a legislative bottleneck. With the gambling bill flitting upon the ever-moving horizon envisioned by Speaker Robert DeLeo, a teeth-gnashingly arduous fiscal 2011 budget process still ahead in both chambers, and the new current-year gap with which to cope, it is time for those who prize passage of a particular measure to begin eyeing the calendar. Wednesday was the annual deadline for committees to issue reports on individual pieces of legislation, a day on which veritable death certificates are printed quietly for countless bills, while others win new life.

Bullying will probably land on the governor's desk, the fiscal notes must, and gambling will, even if you believe the rosiest union employment creation estimates, give rise to about as many storylines and angles of intrigues as jobs.

Lent chuckles in limited fashion by the outpouring of holiday roasts, the week was besotted by health care intrigue, both here and in Washington. It might be the defining policy question of the age. This week, it was another campaign prop.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Rising tide appeared to float Democratic health care hopes in Washington.

MUSCLE MEMORY: U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, perhaps out of habit, genuflected Sunday morning to state Senate President Therese Murray, slyly raising the issue himself over an issue he said had been dogging him, queries around whether he intended to seek the most powerful, autonomous office in the land. "I want to make this absolutely clear, for the record," Brown smirked. "I have absolutely no interest in Terry Murray's job." You can take the barn jacket out of the culture of full bipartisan fealty, but …

This program aired on March 20, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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