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State House Roundup: Rewriting History

There are lies, damned lies and statistics – and then there are jobs numbers.

Yes, jobs numbers, the lighter fluid of campaigns, shaping easy-to-follow storylines of “on the mend and on the move” or “faster and stronger than the rest of the nation.” They fueled Gov. Deval Patrick’s contention that the Bay State was returning to prosperity and torched his opponents as they sought to spin the numbers against him.

Turns out, all those numbers were wrong.

With a simple keystroke by a national economist, a new federal calculation of job losses and growth rendered last year’s plotlines, essentially, moot. Massachusetts never plunged to the 9.5 percent unemployment rate last January that Patrick’s opponents gleefully bludgeoned him with – the real nadir was 8.8 percent. Nor did the state capture the quite as many jobs in 2010 as Patrick heralded in campaign fliers and press releases.

“We didn’t have as deep a hole to climb out of, and we didn’t climb as far as we thought,” said UMass Public Policy professor Michael Donahue.

Campaign trail realities have a funny way of unmasking themselves after the polls close.

So it was when Patrick was confronted with the question of the moment Thursday: why on Earth would the board of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the state’s largest health insurer – currently populated by Democratic mainstays like Bob Haynes and Phil Johnston – allow the company’s former boss, Cleve Killingsworth, to walk away with an $8.6 million payday in 2010, when he worked only two and a half months?

Patrick, whose one-of-the-people empathy for small business owners translated on the campaign trail into a full-scale assault on Republican Charlie Baker’s $1.6 million salary as a health insurance executive, would surely fan the populist outrage. Right?

“My focus is on getting health care costs down, not on compensation. I'm going to continue to focus on that,” Patrick told a thick of reporters, dropping in a plug for his new health care payment reform legislation. “My bill is about shifting the incentives for how health care is paid. That's what I am going to focus on. I'm not going off on that tangent.”

Oh.

Republicans, slamming their skulls against the wall, reminded reporters of the $16,500 in campaign support that Killingsworth rained upon Patrick and other Democratic heavies over the last few years. They recalled Patrick’s own severance pay from Coca-Cola in 2004. Democratic Party chair and longtime Patrick ally and strategist John Walsh countered that Patrick shouldn’t have to weigh in on the problem – he’s taken on the insurance companies with his policy proposals and actions.

The Patrick administration this week also floated the next trial balloon in that eternal conversation about “what it is we want government to do and not do.”

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, the administration’s rail guru, on Tuesday casually mentioned that the MBTA – under the control of a governor-appointed board – was considering an operational takeover of the state’s $280-million-a-year commuter rail service. The state has, for years, contracted with private companies to run the trains, although the current operator, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Company, took hits this week when innocent-looking evening commutes to Worcester and Fitchburg turned into train rides from Hell.

Murray’s suggestion, whether it materializes or not, is the latest in a Patrick administration trend: if something’s broke, let us fix it.

The network of private attorneys that make up the public defender system is too costly? Let’s blow it up and rebuild it as a state agency. The Probation Department is a teeming with corruption and patronage? Merge it with the Parole Board as a state agency. Terry Dougherty, the Patrick administration’s Medicaid chief, made clear last week he’d prefer to scrap the private health insurance market in favor of greater government involvement – although he made clear his remarks were his own, not the administration’s.

Lawmakers this week were also not interested in farming out work. The House convened briefly to ratify the foregone conclusion that its members, not an independent commission, will take the lead on redrawing the Bay State’s political boundaries.

A hearing schedule for the most pressing priorities, revamping probation and parole agencies and weakening collective bargaining for municipal health care, puts the earliest possible action on those proposals sometime in April, although Sen. Katherine Clark – chair of the Public Service Committee – has indicated that some of the more time-sensitive components of the health care proposal could be churned out in advance of the weightier policy changes.

It’s been tough, of course, to keep the wandering eyes of the political class on the Bay State this week, with a confluence of national distractions.

Beltway questions about Gov. Mitt Romney’s role in the Bay State’s own health reform adventure have put local officials in the national glare. The LA Times – Los Angeles! – came calling for the Senate president and others this week to get the honest-to-god truth about the ex-governor’s input into the Massachusetts health overhaul.

The governor also sent a jolt through the political establishment when he shed generations of decorum and told the National Journal that Newton Mayor Setti Warren and City Year co-founder Alan Khazei were “for sure” going to challenge U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in 2012 – before Warren and Khazei had announced themselves. (Both still haven’t confirmed with absolute certainty that they are in the race.)

The governor began the week in Washington, jousting with Congressional Republicans on national health reform and ended the week on a plane to Denver for a Democratic Party dinner.

He left on an icy note with the local press corps, miffed at his unwillingness to address the Killingsworth payout head on. Then again, that’s what they say about March. In like a lion…

STORY OF THE WEEK: Cleve made a killing.

WHAT DeLEO MEANT: House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s brand of humor is often interwoven with inside-the-building, legislator-speak that, depending on the audience, might draw chuckles or fall flat. So when he joked Tuesday that he hoped a bunch of college students lobbying for financial aid would stay in Massachusetts so that they could work a lot and he could collect their tax dollars, it could’ve gone either way. The students erupted into laughter – DeLeo nailed the joke. But his message, really a decidedly pro-jobs pitch — the state would only collect revenue from its students if they get jobs and pay income taxes – has since become a source of controversy, with at least one local columnist wondering whether the speaker simply views college students as cash machines to support state government. The quote, and subsequent reporting thereof, appeared to clash with the speaker’s message in the year following his successful drive to increase the state sales tax: no new taxes, fees or anything that looks like a tax or a fee. But the underlying message in DeLeo’s statement was obvious: the more jobs Massachusetts creates and retains, the more income taxes the state collects – it’s an inextricable link that doesn’t have anything to do with what the tax rate is. And that’s no punchline.

This program aired on March 4, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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