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State House Roundup: Uncivil Unions

How history will treat the speakership of Robert DeLeo, whose guile is often obscured by his penchant for meandering verbosity, remains foggy, at best.

But for a moment Thursday, as he stood on the House rostrum and offered comfort to his bruised and tired flock — 158 rapt and mostly fawning representatives — DeLeo cemented two elements of his enigmatic persona: guardian and navigator.

And navigate he did during a week of euphoric highs and anguished lows that often mark the House’s budget deliberations, coalescing an improbable 156 of his colleagues around a $30.5 billion state budget – the largest annual plan in state history – that still somehow cut large swaths out of typically sacrosanct programs and lacked even the whiff of a tax increase.

That DeLeo cobbled together broad support for his budget, including the solid backing of the Republican caucus, was a feat made even more astonishing by the knowledge that a seething horde of pro-union activists was clawing at the chamber’s doors.

Labor leaders found themselves outflanked and dumbstruck on Tuesday after the House voted 111-42 in favor of a plan permitting cities and towns to chop the long-held collective bargaining power of municipal employees over key features of their health care. Unions fund and elect Democratic candidates, their thinking went. They wouldn’t dare aim a dagger at a core constituency, would they? Not with collective bargaining under attack in Wisconsin, Ohio and across the country, right?

Turns out they would. Eighty-two Democrats and 29 Republicans lined up behind DeLeo and stared down union threats, arguing that the health benefits guaranteed to workers have been swallowing up efforts to increase investments in education, police and firefighters.

Whether DeLeo’s guidance proves to be politically astute hinges largely on whether his gamble – based partly on polls showing public employee unions losing ground in the court of public opinion – that the public will applaud the shot at organized labor. And if not, an expanded gambling vote in just a few months could serve to soften the rancor.

But for now, labor leaders, led by Robert Haynes, the outspoken AFL-CIO chief, promised political upheaval for the Democrats, who, in his view, were too fearful to stand up to DeLeo in a defining moment for organized labor. And the vote wasn’t even close.

“I’m not surprised it’s not that close,” Haynes said in the minutes following the House vote. “When you’re the speaker of the House in the commonwealth of Massachusetts and you decide who the chairs are and you get to decide who gets to be the head of each section, you have a lot of power, an inordinate amount of power in the speaker. It’s pretty obvious. The same people that tell us all the time that they support us wouldn’t stand up to the speaker. So they’re lying to somebody. They either didn’t support us and don’t believe in collective bargaining or the speaker has so much power he turned them around.”

Somewhere Matt Patrick is rolling in his political grave. The unseated House Democrat’s Cassandra-like cries in the 11th hour of his tenure in the House – blaming a power structure that imbues the speaker and Senate president with near total control of the agenda, and the financial compensation of their colleagues, and therefore, their fealty – went largely disregarded as the ranting of a perpetual backbencher.

But now the most powerful union boss in one of the most powerful union states believes the speaker of the Massachusetts House has accrued too much power? What’s the world come to?

Of course, Haynes’s point was only bolstered by the utter silence of members when it actually came time to debate collective bargaining. Even veteran staffers were shocked that literally no public debate ensued when House members were asked to vote on the hotly anticipated subject.

Lawmakers, apparently spent from locking horns in closed-door meetings, pretty much clammed up all week, declining to offer a whimper of defense as House leaders scrapped hundreds of their budget priorities with abandon. Of the 758 amendments lawmakers filed to begin the budget process – the lowest number in years, reflecting the austerity of the times but also the increasingly leadership-controlled process – members withdrew 117 of them without pressing for as much as vote on them.

But thanks to a revamped legislative website, following which amendments were pulled and the outcome of votes on hundreds of others was, for a refreshing change, a manageable endeavor, enabling observers to track proceedings with greater clarity than previously possible.

The relative silence of the rank-and-file – and the Republicans for that matter, who mounted a defense of only one of their myriad tax-cutting proposals – contributed to a relatively brisk budgeting pace. That, and the fact that there was not much new money to go around, and therefore few earmarks to fight for, and few programs to bolster.

Still, the House dug deep to add $67.4 million to the budget’s bottom line before kicking its plan over to the Senate.

The only other unions drawing media attention this week were the same-sex kind. Appeals Court Judge Barbara Lenk, seeking elevation from her longtime post to the highest court in Massachusetts, weathered venom from hard-right social conservatives. Lenk, openly gay and married – a fact advanced by the Patrick administration on the day of her nomination this month, despite the governor’s protestations to the contrary – was accused of harboring a “militant” homosexual agenda and seeking to indoctrinate children.

Most councilors rejected the criticism outright and promised to consider Lenk entirely on her merit, not her sexual orientation.

When she actually had a chance to speak, Lenk cut a humble and soft-spoken figure, and she faced few questions about her legal and judicial acumen. However, one issue, raised by Councilor Mary-Ellen Manning, entailed a ruling by Lenk that the crime of incest only applies to acts that could result in the birth of a child, and therefore not applicable to same-sex conduct.

Lenk defended the decision as necessary based on the wording of the law at the time the crime in question was committed, but her critics pointed to a similar ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court’s current chief, Roderick Ireland, that found her definition of incest to be overly “narrow” and failing to consider the commonsense understanding of the crime.

On Friday, the capitol again receded into silence, emptied of union protesters and social conservative forces, a relative calm settling on the State House. Gov. Deval Patrick boarded a jet for California to trade witticisms with humorist and pundit Bill Maher. Legislators retreated to their districts to tout whatever programs they managed to protect in the budget, or excesses they managed to curtail.

The only thing left was an echoing uneasiness about the weeks ahead, when gambling again reemerges to potentially suck the air out of the building, when unions marshal their supporters to lean on the Senate, and as ex-Speaker Salvatore DiMasi prepares for the legal fight of his life in a case that could reveal an assortment of sordid Beacon Hill secrets. The court spent this week selecting jurors.

This program aired on April 29, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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