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State House Roundup: All's Fare

And so 2012 began on the Hill, not with the doe-eyed promise of renewal that a New Year brings, but with the hulking tendrils of the MBTA’s budget woes gripping the jugular of Bay State workers, threatening to cast thousands off the T and onto the roads, scraping the lining of commuters’ wallets, and, in some cases, eliminating residents’ only route to work.

“It's a question really of how much hurt that we're going to put on ’em. But it's going to hurt,” Department of Transportation chairman John Jenkins told the News Service on Wednesday.

What one well-known commuter once described as the “enabling network of our economy,” the state’s system of public transit may slap riders with a fare hike that could price out the low-income users and reverse months of record ridership on the subways, buses and commuter rail.

Fare hike and service cut scenarios that ranged from stark to draconian were unveiled by T officials this week with a muted response by the governor and Legislature. Transportation Secretary Richard Davey assured reporters that Gov. Deval Patrick is unhappy with any move to dissuade commuters from choosing public transit options, but neither he nor legislative leaders offered an alternative solution to an issue with potentially radioactive electoral implications.

Without declaring it, state officials essentially said the “reform before revenue” era, a misnomer since the 2009 reform law was accompanied by new revenues from a sales tax hike, is over. Reform and more revenue may be apropos. To some, the era never began.

“Looks like I was right all along when I said reform without revenue was meaningless – here we are again, thanks in large part to the legislature failing to adopt the 19 cent gas tax increase and $2 parking fee at Logan airport that the governor and I proposed in 2009, a substantial portion of which would have been dedicated to the MBTA” – that’s former Patrick administration Transportation Secretary James Aloisi.

But it was another transportation drama that riveted political prognosticators, conspiracy theorists and anyone who has driven a car. At the foot of the governor’s State House suite, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray stared down a bank of cameras Tuesday and acknowledged that a story he told two months ago about his pre-dawn Nov. 2 car wreck – that he was wearing his seatbelt, that he hit a patch of black ice, and that he had been driving near the speed limit – was apparently his flawed recollection of what happened.

The wreck left Murray’s state-issued Crown Vic a burnt out, mangled husk and, for a time, transformed the L.G. into a poster-boy for airbags and a primary seatbelt law. But thanks to a black box affixed to the car, investigators concluded that not only was Murray unbelted, but his car had accelerated to 108 miles per hour, and the brakes were never applied, consistent with a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.

The recalibrated storyline raised hackles and dropped jaws, with many wondering how anyone without a belt on could have survived a crash that shredded a fortified, police-caliber vehicle like it was a sheet of foil, although the driver’s seat area held up pretty well. Murray, a prospective contender for the Corner Office in 2014, also spawned a campaign’s worth of opposition research, with ample opportunity for competitors to employ “asleep-at-the-wheel” with scarcely concealed double-entendre.

Legislators awoke from a seven-week slumber Wednesday, rubbing the grit from their eyes and declaring with ceremonial swagger, that they are ready to return to do the people’s business. The branches then immediately adjourned for the week, slamming the chamber doors and clearing the capitol just in time to dodge a haymaker of judicial proportions.

From the belly of the John Adams Courthouse, six justices of the Supreme Judicial Court delivered an unrestrained broadside to the legislative branch, labeling lawmakers – the defenders of gay marriage, the protectors of transgender residents – “invidious” discriminators, illegally blocking access to subsidized health care for low-income immigrants.

In a bluntly worded, unanimous ruling by Weld/Cellucci-era judge Robert Cordy, the court laid waste to an already-fragile compromise between the Patrick administration and the Legislature, striking down a program intended to corral 30,000 low-income, legal immigrants into scaled-back health coverage, if only to spare the state a $90 million budget expense.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday that the program, hatched in fiscal desperation by lawmakers in 2009, after Patrick refused to eliminate health coverage for the immigrants altogether, violated the equal protection clause of the Massachusetts Constitution.

“We recognize that our decision will impose a significant financial burden on the Commonwealth,” Cordy wrote. “If the plaintiffs' right to equal protection of the laws has been violated by the enactment of [the law], then it is our duty to say so.”

The decision immediately blew an estimated $150 million hole in the annual budget, hitting taxpayers with costs tied to a 2006 health care law program for a population that the federal government refuses to support, at least until provisions of a federal health care law take effect in 2014.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Commuters brace for a burn.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The last bastion of the Soviet Union exists just south of Salem.” R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, according to a press account from the Granite State. Gingrich has continued an assault on Massachusetts, hoping its blue sheen taints the candidacy of his rival, former Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney, according to polls, is poised to cruise to a win in New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, but busloads of Bay State politicos hope to have a say in the matter over the weekend.

This program aired on January 6, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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