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State House Roundup: Granite State Of Mind

Like clockwork every four years, droves of scribes, pols and pundits headed for a week in enemy territory to the north where monikers like "Massachusetts moderate" are dirty words and working the rope line is even more important than shaking hands outside of Fenway.

Bay State Republicans crossed the border to support their former party leader in the final days of his New Hampshire primary push this week, while out-of-state Republicans helped Democrats tune up the Mitt Romney-Bain Capital bashing machine, and Gov. Deval Patrick dutifully defended the president.

Not even Romney doing his best impersonation of Jane Swift's "firing mood" could derail his prospects in New Hampshire, and so on to South Carolina.

While it was hard to penetrate the cacophonous coverage of Romney's thoroughly unsurprising primary victory, Beacon Hill officials used the diversion to try to set expectations for the weeks to come.

Gov. Patrick is expected to detail his plans for local aid spending next week. The release this week of a $21.95 billion consensus tax revenue estimate reflecting 6.9 percent growth over the original estimate for this year's budget brought enthusiasm from some quarters, which was dampened by budget writers fretful over fixed cost trajectories.

Despite pledges from leaders that the winter recess would yield a compromise on tough new habitual offender laws and sentencing reform, the non-progress made by a House-Senate conference committee also appeared to get an extension when House Speaker Robert DeLeo suggested the House would take up the portion of a Senate crime bill left on the drafting board in November. The news made it feel like that bill's timetable got a lot more squishy.

And while the Senate passed a much balleyhooed oversight bill for education collaboratives and a job-leave bill for victims of domestic violence who work for employers with 50 or more workers, the House teed up for next week a $131 million mid-year spending bill as its first order of 2012 business.

Explanations for millions allocated to the budgets of sheriffs, who run the jails, and changes to limited network health plans were unavailable by week's end, but the feel-good freeze of unemployment insurance rates for businesses and low-income heating assistance made perfect election-year sense.

Following the announcement of an agreement between legislative and executive officials on the revenue estimate, the governor's budget chief, as he has in the past, tried to tamp down calls for spending to be restored after several years of downsizing.

Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez predicted another tough budget cycle in 2012 with fixed costs for safety net programs, debt service and collective bargaining contracts eating up far more than the projected tax revenue growth can cover.

Though Gonzalez preferred to talk about unspecified, forthcoming budget reforms to save money rather than identify a politically loathsome "budget gap," Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer called the $21.95 billion tax collection estimate a "conservative" guess and projected policy officials will be left with an $800 million to $900 million hole.

Gonzalez said the governor's budget would include "modest" revenue proposals, though he has already ruled out a so-called broad-based tax hike: think bottle bill and/or the candy/soda tax over the gas tax.While spring-like temperatures persisted throughout the week, the Thursday forecast for snow in some parts of the state and black ice on the road no doubt left Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray's aides urging the pol to stay in bed even if his daughters found themselves restless during the night.

Murray continued to be plagued by the reluctance of many throughout the state to accept his revised version of what transpired the morning of his pre-dawn, car-crunching crash along Interstate 191, fueling a seemingly endless variety of conspiracy theories, some more believable than others.

"I can tell you clearly, unequivocally and I've answered this now a number of times that I was not on the phone, I was not emailing. I was not texting," Murray breathlessly told a Boston Herald reporter on Wednesday after his only Boston public appearance this week, sticking to the police determination that he fell asleep at the wheel.

Still, unlike when he directed the State Police in a departure from protocol to release the contents of the black box in his mangled Crown Victoria, Murray deferred to the governor's chief legal counsel for an answer on whether his cell phone records will be offered up for public dissection. So far, the answer has been, "No."

Rep. Vincent Pedone finalized plans this week to leave the Legislature next Friday, and Rep. William Brownsberger won his uncontested Senate election Tuesday and plans to be sworn into the upper chamber Jan. 24.

Both departures leave House Speaker Robert DeLeo in the position of deciding whether costs and electoral complications from redistricting should outweigh the core principle of representative government - after all, formal sessions this year run through July.

DeLeo, listening to the advice of Secretary of State William Galvin, said he was leaning toward not scheduling a special election in Worcester, Cambridge, Arlington and Belmont. It is incumbent on the House to approve an order for a special election, and with Pedone deferring to his Worcester colleagues, that delegation plans to meet this coming week to chart a course of action.

The Worcester City Council came down firmly in favor of holding a special election, despite the cost and the reality that any candidate would have to run in the district Pedone was elected to while gathering signatures at the same time in new precincts joined by redistricting for the regular fall elections.

Rep. John Binienda, the dean of the delegation, wrote to the speaker supporting a special, but also conceded that the shift in 2012 for the 15th Worcester District to a majority-minority population could give pause to lawmakers wary of appearing to advantage the winner of a special election.

Also on the 2012 election front, Democrat Elizabeth Warren announced a staggering fourth-quarter fundraising haul of $5.7 million, eclipsing the $3.2 million raised over the same three-month period by U.S. Sen. Scott Brown.

Though Brown still holds a two-to-one advantage over Warren in on-hand cash with $12.8 million in his war chest, the totals on both sides seemed to back up what Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh told the Roundup a few weeks back:

"The biggest growth industry in Massachusetts in 2012 will be teaching people to use their TiVOs so they can fast forward through the commercials," Walsh said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Romney heads south with pair of W's.

This program aired on January 13, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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