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State House Roundup: Thirteen Days

Eyeball to eyeball, conferee to conferee, the slack gone from the rope, down to the final 13 days open for formal sessions, a fortnight so pregnant with zero-sum tonicity the capitol halls sizzle with it.

If the gambling bill doesn't reach Gov. Deval Patrick's desk by next Tuesday, and perhaps even if it does, due to the terms and conditions of the legislative calendar the governor will have the option of vetoing features he does not wish to become law or perhaps even nixing the whole shebang, with near-complete assurance the Legislature has no recourse in the form of overrides. This law of legislative physics strengthens Patrick's already uncommonly strong hand in the negotiations over the bill. Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray do not want slot machines at the state's racetracks, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and the legions of state reps who stuck their election-year necks out for him in flipping their votes do, and the rest of us are along for the ride.

Asked Friday whether he expects to receive a bill that would enable him to exercise his line item veto, Patrick said, "I don't know what to expect at this point. I hope I get a bill I don't have to veto."

Not too long ago, like last week, the arithmetical solution was simple: Render unto DeLeo the things that be DeLeo's, and render unto her the things that be hers. That meant some combo of slots, small business health care cost relief, a multi-pronged criminal justice policy, small business tax breaks, and economic development bureaucracy restructuring, all merrily aboard the Democratic loveboat as it cruised toward the harbor of enactment.

Until the damn thing turtled on the acrimonious shoals of bicameralism, and now serious people are talking in somber tones about a two-week stare-down that yields nothing in the way of major legislation. The unimaginable - failure to sanction casinos despite Big 3 ardor and at least $1.8 million spent on lobbying during the first six months of the year - looms.

"We could have the biggest legislative session in the next two weeks, or zero," one House leader said late Thursday.

There it is. The ugly threat that everyone could pack their bags in two weeks for the hustings and leave squabbling, a seemingly unlikely prospect given how petty and ineffectual it'd make everyone look.

Some lower-priority legislation advanced this week, including a tapioca package of budget management tools for cities and towns. The Senate passed, after prolonged debate Thursday, a bill granting the state's electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide, intended to circumvent the Electoral College and up the odds of a raw majority picking the president. The House signed onto the plan endorsed by the Senate and Patrick to loosen the strictures on land-based wind farm construction, over objections from western Mass. legislators who believe, with justification, they'll bear much of the development.

The ballot questions got numbers: repealing the new alcohol sales tax is Question 1; abolishing 40B, the comprehensive housing permit law, is Question 2; and cutting the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent is Question 3. There will be bumper stickers.

The accounting for fiscal 2010 approached its endgame, with one last spending bill working its way through the process, and the year's tax collections finishing up $78 million above benchmark, up 1.5 percent from the year prior. The bad economic news was that job creation balked last month, with just 500 new positions, even though unemployment came down from 9.2 percent to 9.

And Patrick going weak-kneed on the state's standardized tests for public school students (see below), sure to conflagrate into a spicy campaign issue down the stretch.

See, it wasn't like there wasn't a lot going on this week. There was, hard-to-follow action on a variety of fronts, a lot of geese in the bog. What's uncertain is how much of this stuff gets shouldered through the grinder in the final, as of deadline, 337 hours of the cycle, whether the gambling debate can slip its personality-based moorings.

Ample space for compromise exists. The Senate made an overture Thursday with a one-racino package, fully processed through licensing, that House conferees snubbed as the hard-liners from all sides moved in and started to occupy the controls. There's a two-casino, two-racino idea still out there, along with, a little farther up in the ether, granting the racetracks their slots, but "sunsetting" them after three years or whenever casinos go live.

What was so obvious months ago, what happens every time something this big comes down the line, is that personality can matter more than policy - see health care, 2006. What remains unknown is who steps up and who blinks, and whether stepping up means blinking.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gridlock. Ping-pong match.

IF IT'S FRIDAY: Politically controversial policy changes or unflattering personnel moves within the Patrick administration announced Friday afternoon don't even really qualify in and of themselves as news anymore, just further cementing of a strategic operating pattern established long ago and clung to in barnacle-like fashion. This week, it was the governor backpedaling from earlier administration commitments not to go wobbly on MCAS. A little less than two months ago, education chief Paul Reville told the News Service the state had "absolutely no plan to replace MCAS." Hey, policy moves fast up here on the Hill. Because Friday afternoon, the state's education commissioner was talking about his plan to move to national standards, with the caveat that there would be no weakening of academic rigor. Connecting the dots, the Baker and Cahill campaigns noted that Patrick earlier in the week had picked up the endorsement of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which fervently opposes … wait for it … MCAS.

HAVE FUN STORMING THE CASTLE: The policy crew at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston unfurled a plan this week to rewire local aid distribution, suggesting a gap-based formula that avoids reducing existing levels of support, aimed at smoothing out inequities in check sizes. The incremental aid would flow to cities and towns with larger chasms between municipal costs and revenue capacity based on economic and social dynamics beyond control of the budget managers. Sounds tough to do without any new money. Also might be a little tricky because efforts to tinker with local aid usually result in rhetorical beheadings at town meetings and Little League fields. "Redistributing existing aid is politically difficult, and thus may not be feasible in practice," the report shrewdly notes.

STILL FRIDAY: The MCAS press strategy apparently worked so well that Patrick's press office opted to follow it a short time later with another controversial morsel. While the press was scrambling to cover education policy, the governor's press office sent out the announcement that judicial nominee David Aptaker was throwing in the towel. "The Governor understands and respects …" Yawn. Aptaker was sunk after the Governor's Council turned up undisclosed campaign contributions to former Norfolk Register of Probate John Buonomo and former state Sen. James Marzilli, two of the uglier departures from government service in recent years.

This program aired on July 16, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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