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State House Roundup: There've Been A Lot Of Changes In The Law

"You can't take a position," said Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, steeped in the Eastern and backbench philosophies, "on something you haven't seen."

What Rep. Smitty has evidently not learned, after four terms, is that sometimes you can take a position based on what the guy with the big office on the third floor wants, and for which he provides ample, skillful political cover. Everyone else appears to be doing so.

There's a special, twisted joy in watching the elected officials explain their "policy evolutions," the unseemly squirming and squeamishness that comes with delivering a straight-faced — in some cases — capitol confession. "It's a different bill" is one stock answer. Of course, unemployment rates flirting with double digits offer them the frustratingly convenient out, but it was still spoonfuls of fun this week watching House Speaker Robert DeLeo rack up the votes, eyeing a veto-proof majority somewhere in the 106-vote range, a mark of which he was shy but threatening by week's end.

Accommodations were being made. While, startlingly, the delegations representing the four racetracks have been virtually silent about the 750-machine cap DeLeo's bill imposes on their prospective "racinos," other members have put forth changes to which DeLeo appears amenable — among them, tweaks to the way the state picks its casino licensees. At a prolonged joint caucus behind closed doors Thursday, Economic Development co-Chair Brian Dempsey looked to pacify the disgruntled western Massachusetts delegation by letting on that there might be an opportunity, at some point, maybe, to permit a third casino.

There are some 216 amendments pending to the two casino/four racino legislation, including Rep. Steve Canessa's hopes to situate 750 slots at Logan International Airport, for those who like a little side game of chance with their air travel. Some amendments will be belly-laughed into oblivion, like the proposal to prohibit casino ATMs from distributing more than $100 to any one patron during a 24-hour period. That'd be one the casino industry would likely resist.

"It's just that right now we have so much bad and we have nothing good to look to. And we've put huge investments into other industries and this is the only industry that right now is coming and says it wants to invest in Massachusetts," said Rep. Cory Atkins, that amendment's sponsor and a Concord (!) Democrat explaining why she'll probably back the gambling bill, before veering so far off the Patrick party line it seemed as if she might launch her own Bakercrat caucus right there on the Old North Bridge: "We have no prospects of revenues or jobs on the horizon. None. Zip. Nada."

Legacy issue for the speaker. "My first major goal as speaker of the House is, at the end of my tenure here, to walk out of here on my own terms, and for people, you know, to say we may have disagreed with him, but he served with honesty and integrity," DeLeo told the News Service Thursday, getting right up in the twice-indicted face of his predecessor. "But the other thing I was thinking about, as I was looking and talking to some of these folks in these union halls, is I'd like to be remembered the speaker who provided jobs for people, gave people an opportunity. I know it sounds hokey." Hokey sells.

Heading into next week's vote, DeLeo appears to have positioned the bill quite nicely for emergence from the floor. Goodness, it's already won a pair of committee votes by an aggregate 30-8 score (79 percent). What happens to it from there - with Senate President Therese "Cha-Ching" Murray craftily keeping dry her powder and Gov. Deval Patrick essentially fencing himself into a slots veto that could prove, in the face of a House override, logistically ineffectual but electorally fruitful - remains unclear even to DeLeo.

The governor also thinks he has a winner in this health care donnybrook. The policy pronouncement two months ago that he would decapitate the efforts of health insurers' double-digit premium increases, through a nifty calibration of government and campaign operations, has burst fully into the gubernatorial election's leading issue on the scoreboard, one political cynics and other smart folks insist is aimed squarely at Republican Charles Baker, former health insurance CEO. Patrick charges complicity, Baker and un-enrolled Treasurer Timothy Cahill answer that Patrick's plan would put insurers out of business.

Legally, it's playing out, for now, in Suffolk Superior Court, where Judge Stephen Neel said he'll decide by Monday whether the state can tell nonprofit insurance companies how much they can charge small businesses and individuals. Go put some money down that this thing will drag on, offering haymaking opportunities for candidates near and far. It's national news. Massachusetts does it again.

While Patrick vilifies the insurers, Baker was taking on the Registry, clowning the system as too slow and outmoded. He called a Chinatown press conference Monday to play up his idea of transactional RMV kiosks. Two weak-polling marks: insurers and the Registry. The governor and Baker are going to have to watch themselves that they do not run astray of this still-developing anti-bullying legislation if they keep razzing these bureaucrats.

Un-enrolled Treasurer Timothy Cahill picked up some ground in a new poll, still in third behind Patrick and Baker, and on Wednesday said he would officially run with the "Independent" imprimatur, newly forged by the tweeners who can't stand to be with the Ds or the Rs. Officially what it means is that, when he's on the ballot in November to be the governor who gets to work with the U.S. senator who is Scott Brown, Cahill will have "Independent" next to his name.

While the action chugs along dual tracks over the next few months, before switching just about entirely to the electoral thoroughfare, Senate President Murray has selected next Wednesday — which is essentially political news Armageddon given the gambling debate, House budget publication, and arrival of Scott Brown admirer Sarah Palin — to announce her intentions to slice into health care costs' upward trends. She's doing it at the Chamber, where she will, veteran handicappers say, be asked her thoughts on the speaker's gambling bill.

Murray has been even cagier than the governor about the matter, and if DeLeo gets his two-thirds, her opinions will exercise more influence over the result than the governor's. Senators trust and follow Murray, the way the House members are hanging with DeLeo in this fight, and if a conference committee finds her immovably opposed to racetrack slots, she will be supping solo at the table of power, a five-course legislative agenda laid out before her.

STORY OF THE WEEK: DeLeo's cause finds a movement.

WHAT GOES AROUND: Democratic mayor of capital city with chance to work alongside first Democratic governor of your 85-year tenure, how do you find his job performance? Thomas Menino answered, "C," while qualifying that Patrick has stepped up his game to the "B+" level since working to pass Menino's education policy interests. When Democratic observers with no particular fealty to either boss were finished gaping at the mayor's audacity, they noted that Patrick was, in his own words, "officially neutral" in last year's mayoral election. Patrick said then, "I think it's been a great race, strong candidacies, and (am) looking forward to the outcome." It appears that the outcome, at this juncture, is a damningly middling grade from the state's most powerful mayor, who has for many years resisted allegations of vindictiveness.

GOOD LUCK, GONZO: The Senate tacked onto its economic development agency restructuring bill Thursday a limit on salaries for executives at the state's roughly 50 quasi-public agencies. They could earn more than the governor, who currently makes $143,000, only if their agencies justified the compensation in writing. Unclear in the amendment, which passed on a 35-2 vote, was how the administration and finance secretary would decide whether "justified documentation" is, in fact, justified. If the language makes it through the House and earns the governor's signature, the task would fall to budget chief Jay Gonzalez to make that call.

This program aired on April 9, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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