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State House Roundup: Down The Pike

Early-session ruminations while waiting to see if Kindle sales of "A Reason To Believe" correlate with how often Gov. Deval Patrick touts the "innovation economy" and wondering what kind of contorted meteorological karma emanating from the Blackstone Valley resulted in an April Fool's Day coating of radioactive snow.

While House leaders — all 70 of them — ditched the glare of the golden dome for the Amherst permafrost, the body's budget chief-turned-babysitter Brian Dempsey on Thursday shepherded a $325 million spending plan to Patrick's desk, with a unanimous assist from the Senate. Credit, too, to the eight Republicans who voted against the plan but, for whatever reason, opted against speaking up about it until after it passed and took a pass on trying to slow it down as it sped through the House.

Republicans attributed a divide in their caucus in one of the first substantive votes of the session to diverse concerns over specific spending items, although post-passage press releases described all the naysayers as "incensed" about spending levels and collectively bargained pay raises funded in the bill.

The gush of spending, more than half of it federal funding for hospitals, also includes $50 million in months-old back pay for snow and ice contractors, even as the latest storm threatens to pile on new deficiencies.

Lawmakers also discarded Patrick's request for enhanced authority to close state prison facilities, likely foreshadowing their designs for the rest of his big-ticket budget agenda, much of which they've already publicly trashed or questioned or dismissed outright.

Separately, the rush to pass a $200 million borrowing plan for cities and towns' roadwork in time to beat an April 1 deadline got caught up in a burst of awareness about the suddenly sacrosanct hearing process.

Although lawmakers seemed content to spend $325 million with a few minutes of debate but little detailed analysis, barely a day of review and no opportunity for public input, the road repair bill — which sailed unanimously through the House and has been called "last great non-partisan program we have" — stalled to leave time for its third public committee review next week.

While this was going on, Speaker Robert DeLeo and his leadership team took refuge in the Third Hampshire district Thursday for a night of lawmaking strategy, economic study, an ABCs lesson on committee chairing and whatever else lawmakers wanted to bring up at the secret getaway. The powwow, a 90-mile cruise down the Pike away from Boston, marched on despite weather reports warning of a 10- to 15-inch snow blast threatening the area.

Earlier in the week, lawmakers were treated to a cathartic, if not results-producing, inquiry into the business decisions of Fidelity Investments and Evergreen Solar, by the subpoena-wielding Senate Post Audit Committee. Both companies, recipients of multi-million-dollar tax breaks, combined in recent weeks to send 1,900 jobs out of Massachusetts, blunting the very real job gains that Massachusetts experienced in February and which were echoed by positive national job growth news on Friday.

Patrick went on the radio Thursday and jabbed at Evergreen CEO Michael El-Hillow, calling the executive "out of the loop" on prior negotiations between the company and state officials, and saying the company should return some of the $58 million in tax incentives doled out to lure the company to Massachusetts in the first place.

Patrick also sought to assume the populist outrage that he partly helped stoke when he refused to weigh in on an $11 million payout to a former Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts executive revealed last month.

"I'm sick of their excuses," Patrick said of health insurers. "I want the premiums down. Not just leveled off, but down." He also suggested that Bay Staters feel "like chumps" because of the "symbolism" of issues like the large Blue Cross payout at a time of rising premiums.

The week began, of course, with news that Bay State precipitation contains a few picocuries of radioactive iodine, most likely generated by nuclear material spewing from damaged Japanese nuclear reactors. Harmless quantities, state officials insisted, which would make it decidedly less radioactive than the governor's criminal justice agenda.

Patrick, preparing for an aggressive book-peddling schedule that will take him on the road in April for slightly fewer days than the Red Sox, watched Wednesday as two co-equal branches of government ganged up on his public safety chief and dismissed her increasingly futile-looking call to merge the probation department with the parole board under the governor's control.

If Patrick has any allies on that proposal, they didn't show themselves, when judge after judge, lawyer after lawyer, legislator after legislator dismissed the plan and expressed wild admiration for the new probation commissioner, Ron Corbett, whose leadership is being treated as a cure-all for department ills.

Neither lawmakers nor witnesses at the Judiciary Committee hearing offered more than a whisper about the Legislature's own alleged role in the lurid patronage scandal that led to calls by legislative leaders to fast-track probation legislation in the first place. Attorney Paul Ware, whose damning report shook the foundations of state government at the time, as subpoenas rained down upon the hill, didn't attend.

STORY OF THE WEEK: A House away from home.

TIEBREAKIN' TIM: Lt. Gov. Tim Murray salvaged what could've been a brutal week for the governor's public safety agenda, staving off the rejection of two of Patrick's Parole Board nominees by putting on his "ninth Governor's Councilor" hat and casting the tiebreaking vote. Like he did with the nomination of prosecutor Heather Bradley for a Plymouth District Court seat, Murray handed the gavel to the governor during a governor's council meeting and cast the deciding vote on victim-witness advocate Lucy Soto-Abbe and former federal probation office John Bocon. "I wouldn't be voting for them if I didn't have confidence in them," Murray said afterward. Patrick's other two nominees, Charlene Bonner and Ina Howard-Hogan, cleared more easily, completing Patrick's transformation of the board.

This program aired on April 1, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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