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State House Roundup: 'Not Serious At All'

An uncomfortable silence emanated from the capitol this week, with most lawmakers on the road absorbing waves of bleak economic news and the governor sucking up the ultraviolet in Bermuda, leaving Lt. Gov. Tim Murray to singlehandedly honor clean-energy interns, battle notorious tree-murdering beetles, and digest the latest on the Big Dig.

A thick agenda looming over the dome — expanded gambling, pension reform, a remaking of the state’s health care payment and delivery system – seemed frozen in suspended animation. And few members of the Great and General Court were within earshot when another former colleague — South Boston Democrat Brian Wallace — sang that all-too-familiar two-word refrain: Not guilty.

Fortunately for a diminished set of State House scribes, when the annual August vacuum of policy action arrived, long-dormant political operatives saw an opportunity to scrape off their post-2010 rust and hurl biscuits of catnip at a hungry press corps.

Murray seized on the silence to gore Sen. Scott Brown for what he described as the junior senator’s penchant for silence on critical issues until the last minute, and a new entry in the annals of alliterative political name-calling was born: last-minute Larry. Shortly after opining on ways to breed bipartisanship and bring elected officials together for the common good, Murray used the term three times in a seven-minute interview to criticize Brown’s attitude on transportation policy.

The Twittersphere erupted. “Tim for Senate?” tweeted PR veteran/social media instigator David Guarino. “First he has to tell us who this Larry is.”

Brown’s political consultant, Eric Fehrnstrom responded with sarcastic disdain: “It's been so long since we've heard anything from the lieutenant governor that I was beginning to think the office was vacant.”

Next the state GOP fomented righteous and cynical anger, reprising 2006 Democratic attacks on Gov. Mitt Romney by ripping Gov. Deval Patrick as a “jet-setting governor” for taking a week off during an uncertain economic time. Murray handled the response, jabbing at Republican Party chair Jennifer Nassour. Her crime? Scooting off to Iowa while criticizing Patrick for vacationing out of state.

The Party of No Vacations upped the ante Thursday, distributing a fake postcard from “The People of Massachusetts” to Gov. Patrick, mocking him for sunning in Bermuda at a time when rating agencies were eyeing credit downgrades for a dozen Massachusetts communities. Of particular note was a knock on Patrick’s “summer conversations” tour — the party mocked him for visiting Martha’s Vineyard. On Friday, Sen. Brown disembarked in Nantucket for his own conversations tour without a parallel response from Democrats. At least not yet.

Speaking of going places, perhaps the biggest news of the week was the acknowledgement of a gaping, water-filled sinkhole beneath the Big Dig. The gap, below one of the tunnels, is costing millions of dollars to monitor and will require expensive repairs once soil frozen during the tunnel’s construction stops thawing. It was a lot for motorists and taxpayers who paid for the project to digest. The tunnel is safe, officials said, repeating a phrase they’ve uttered many times in response to shortcomings in a tunnel network system that appears to be developing its own legacy, apart from its construction, for its shortcomings and expensive upkeep.

A day before being promoted to state highway administrator, Frank DePaola, an engineer with 30 years in the design and construction industry at the MBTA, the Allston Development Group and the MWRA, said the subterranean void was “not serious at all” and that $10 million has been budgeted for future repairs. Independent engineers have assured state officials the tunnel is strong enough to work as a bridge, if necessary. DePaola said, “It's another issue that we have to monitor so that we can react if anything does manifest itself. So far there's been no indication of stress or strain within the tunnel sections itself."

On the policy side of the ledger, the leaders of the Massachusetts court system started a 90-day clock required to begin closing 12 of their 101 courthouses and consolidating their functions into other facilities. Chief Justice of Administration and Management Robert Mulligan described with eloquence the eucalyptus wood used to panel the interior of a newly built courthouse and somberly described his fondness for court buildings before telling lawmakers that Massachusetts has, by far, more courthouses per capita and per square mile than any state in the country.

Two months after former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi faced a unanimous guilty verdict from a jury of his peers, a former colleague from the Boston delegation, South Boston Democrat Brian Wallace, was arraigned on charges that he criminally violated campaign finance law. Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office is prosecuting the case, and a trial was set on Monday for May 2012, ensuring headlines about legislative misconduct – alleged and otherwise – will remain pertinent through at least the start of the active campaign season.

STORY OF THE WEEK: On policy vacation, the political returns.

THE SENIOR SENATOR: Aides to U.S. Sen. John Kerry denied this week that he actively lobbied for a seat on the 12-member debt reduction committee that congressional leaders named as part of a deal to lift the country’s debt ceiling, rejecting a flat assertion in Politico that he pushed to participate. Kerry was one of three Senate Democrats named to the panel, which he told reporters he would only join if it weren’t “pre-cooked” or packed with unmovable ideologues. The panel is set to launch a frenzied effort to agree on $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction measures by November, a quest that will be intensely scrutinized for its political and economic ramifications.

This program aired on August 12, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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