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State House Roundup: Power Outage

At 11:47 a.m. Tuesday, a 22-word message flitted into the inbox of every member of the House of Representatives, at once delivering a benign instruction and inadvertently peeling back a layer of the onion that is state government.

“Please be advised that the start of today’s full formal session has been delayed until 1:00 PM. Respectfully, Jim Eisenberg, Speaker’s Office.”

The note from the speaker’s chief of staff belied what was actually happening inside the House chamber. While members carried on their business in remote recesses of the State House, House leaders – with only a handful of consenting members on hand – were busy advancing bills that make changes to statewide drug policy, add a $250,000 penalty for corporate manslaughter and rewrite the state’s trust law. They also advanced a bill sanctioning spear fishing of striped bass and bills allowing public land leases.

The advancement of these bills with most of the House members absent has by now become a clichéd aspect of the modern Legislature, confirmed by the indifference among most members, who dutifully arrived at 1 p.m. to cast votes on a House redistricting bill and a $52 million spending bill, pieces of legislation they deemed worthy of brief discussion and even some debate.

Members over the years have shown less and less interest in diving into the calendars of bills ready for consideration, and legislative leaders dictate which major bills will be considered and when. Lawmakers appear more comfortable than ever in letting the higher-ups calls the shots, and given that power, the leaders have been happy to oblige, in essence saying leave the small and not-so-small stuff to us.

Most House members haven’t made any attempt to conceal this dynamic, bolting for the exits whenever the presiding officers informs them that roll call votes have ended for the day, even as leaders continue to speed-read their way through dozens of bills.

Throughout the week, lawmakers showed uneven levels of interest in interacting with members of the public at committee hearings.

At a meeting of the Housing Committee, which featured testimony on bills to prevent discrimination against domestic violence victims, only five of the committee’s 17 members showed up, even though all of them were on hand just a couple hours later for formal sessions of the House and Senate. A Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday seemed packed, in contrast, with nine of its 17 members attending to hear testimony on the devastation wrought by a designer drug called bath salts and on anti-drunk-driving legislation. And it’s not an aberration; lightly attended hearings have become the norm.

Meanwhile, the highest profile legislation underway – pension reform, expanded gambling, and anti-human-trafficking – will have their final contours determined in secret by six-member teams selected by the speaker, Senate president and minority leaders. The gambling and trafficking conferees convened for the first time this week, and both groups quickly voted to shutter their talks to the public.

If policy observers were in the dark on Beacon Hill, so was a much broader swath of the electorate, with power outages from last weekend’s storm persisting into their sixth day, in some cases to deadly effect. As of Friday afternoon, more than 86,000 homes and businesses still lacked electricity, and public rage toward utility companies – which began in scattered bursts – has become more concentrated as the outages have dragged on.

Gov. Deval Patrick continued this week to couch his criticism of utility companies. At first, he praised them for their “terrific” response to the storm in its immediate aftermath. After U.S. Sen. Scott Brown ripped them and Attorney General Martha Coakley called for an investigation, Patrick began to voice some concern, and he announced his first public tour of storm damage Friday morning.

“It’s a fact that we had the largest October storm in history, that we had an extraordinary amount of damage, mostly because leaves were still on the trees in Central and Western Massachusetts,” he said in a soon-to-be-aired interview on WCVB’s On The Record. “[The utilities] had good plans. But after a few days time, people were frustrated, and they were losing their patience, and I was losing my patience.”

The state of emergency Patrick declared last Saturday night remained in effect heading into the weekend. Emergency management officials said National Guard crews continued to help out in areas where the power is still out, including southern central Massachusetts and smaller towns in northern Massachusetts.

The week also included action in the House on a major, bipartisan overhaul of the state pension system. Under the proposal, the minimum retirement age for state workers would rise to 57 from 55 – a Senate proposal on the topic raised the age to 60 – benefits would be calculated using a five-year average of an employees’ highest annual salary, state police would be required to retire at 65 and employees with 25 years in state government would earn a minimum pension of $15,000.

Both branches also dealt with an explosion in the cost of a new program called Home Base, which steers homeless families out of hotels and motels and into housing with support services, directing $39 million to the program in a spending bill but closing it to new entrants while policymakers brainstorm ways to control a level of interest in the program they did not anticipate.

And for all the care and deliberation that went into redistricting over the first 10 months of the year, the House and Senate breezed through deliberations on the maps produced by a 22-member committee, sending them to the governor with only a brief debate over a central Massachusetts district occupied by Rep. Steven Levy (R-Marlborough). The plan passed the House 150-3, and the Senate passed its own plan unanimously, paving the way for Patrick’s signature less than two days later.

WHAT HAPPENED WEDNESDAY MORNING: Lt. Gov Tim Murray shook up a sleepy press corps Wednesday when he described his 5 a.m. jaunt up I-190 to survey storm damage in the dark, the prelude to a brutal crash precipitated by what police described as icy conditions on the roadway. But whether his explanation of the morning’s events persuades incredulous followers of the story or not, one fact is indisputable: Murray is lucky to be alive. Images of the LG’s wrecked car – a fortified, police-issued Ford Crown Victoria – show a mangled, burned out hunk of metal barely recognizable as a vehicle. Although most of the damage was done to the passenger side of the car, there is little doubt that had Murray not worn his seat belt or his airbag not responded, the story would have had a much grimmer ending. But the bizarre sequence of events surrounding the crash come into even sharper relief when compared with the rest of Murray’s schedule that day. The first oddity was that Murray showed up to work at all, looking slightly shaken but with the only visible injury a bandage on his hand. After taking questions from assembled reporters, Murray’s next order of business was to preside for three hours over a Governor’s Council that was in a particularly ornery mood. The ensuing hours and days featured much speculation about Murray’s explanation that he chose to leave his Worcester home in the pre-dawn hours and drives miles to the north to check out damage from last weekend’s storm. “What he expected to see in the total darkness along a desolate stretch of highway at 65 mph is anyone’s guess,” the Massachusetts Republican Party offered on Friday, giving voice to the sentiments of many.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers navigate a thicket of pension policy and complete a seamless redistricting effort, but a storm and a crash divert the public’s gaze.

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

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