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State House Roundup: Changing Speed

Heady pronouncements about a nation-leading economic recovery, the stuff of intergovernmental talking points shared by leaders in backroom powwows, imploded this week, as long-dormant legislative machinery whirred to life and witnessed a commonwealth beset by fiscal woes.

Anxious commuters, who warned that a proposed elimination of MBTA bus routes could maroon frail and elderly neighbors, found no solace in the state’s AA+ bond rating or its $1.5 billion rainy day fund. Bay State employers dropped 6,200 jobs in December even as the Legislature prepared to throw them a $529 million lifeline and a corporate tax cut took effect. Attorney General Martha Coakley revealed that homeowners facing foreclosure have been deluging her office with calls, while legislation intended to tip the balance of negotiating power from lenders to consumers remained tied up in committee.

Not to mention, the sleuths at the Moakley Courthouse have their sights once again trained on Beacon Hill, according to the Boston Globe, this time allegedly preparing to deliver indictments in connection with a fulminating patronage scandal within the state Probation Department – an opposition researcher’s election-year dream.

National prospects for economic recovery still wobbly, at best, Massachusetts leaders found themselves without their customary ahead-of-the-pack swagger as they warned a rapid ascent from the fiscal abyss had, in the words of House budget czar Brian Dempsey, morphed into a “very, very, very slow” crawl.

As they often do, lawmakers re-acclimated themselves to the business of governing by plowing tens of millions of dollars into favored programs for the needy, the incarcerated, the sick and those on the public payroll. In rapid succession, the House and Senate this week sanctioned a $131 million spending plan, replete with Medicaid spending for adult day health, reinforcements for sheriffs’ and their overcrowded prisons, and a $21 million bailout for low-income families who can’t afford both heat and rent this winter.

Hot-blooded passions erupted in the Senate during consideration of the bill, when Sen. Robert Hedlund seized on the MBTA’s crushing fiscal burden to demand an end to rail expansions championed by the politically savvy but without the backing of an identifiable revenue stream. After ripping “reckless” policies within the agency, Hedlund succeeded in convincing colleagues to back an amendment that would forbid any rail expansions “unless and until a plan is submitted” that details a funding source and an impact on existing infrastructure.

Cities and towns were perhaps the only recipients of welcome news this week, when the Patrick administration – despite its insistence that clamoring for spending increases would be fruitless – announced its first budget proposal, an increase in local education aid of $145 million.

But the governor has new revenues in mind as well. Long-lost proposals to apply the sales tax to candy and soda, as well as to expand the state’s bottle recycling law to include water, sports, drinks and juices – long shunned by lawmakers – are poised for an encore in the governor’s spending plan, part of a $260 million haul Patrick hopes will ease the sting of the budget knife. But it was a proposed hike in the cigarette tax, from $2.51 to $3.01 per pack, that drew immediate scorn from House Republican Leader Bradley Jones, who predicted it would “go up in smoke” when it reached the Legislature.

As for the state’s employment picture, the job losses in December continued a mediocre trend – the state has lost a net 10,000 jobs over the past five months, with wild month-to-month swings buoying the narrative of an uneven, even stagnant economic recovery. But Patrick administration officials leapt on the news that, despite the losses, the state’s unemployment rate fell to 6.8 percent, well ahead of the national 8.5 percent rate.

“I would not say we're stuck in neutral,” said Joanne Goldstein, the Patrick administration’s labor chief.

Republicans ripped the governor for focusing exclusively on the rate, rather than the job losses: “To me, it’s like saying, “The number of sick people could really go down if they would just die,’” Jones opined in a phone interview. William Vernon, head of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, ripped Patrick for offering “targeted incentives to big companies” rather than on the state’s economic climate, which he said had scuttled job growth for a decade.

Energy costs, often cited by businesses as among the most prohibitive aspects of setting up shop in Massachusetts, bubbled to the surface Wednesday, when Attorney General Martha Coakley slammed “sweetheart deals” for utility companies, contending they have been driving up costs for consumers across the state. She said she supports the state’s current renewable energy regulatory scheme and wondered whether renewable energy contracts should be required to be competitively bid.

But her remarks to an audience of business officials in downtown Boston, largely an aside in a speech dedicated to talking up her efforts for homeowners facing foreclosure, drew an immediate rebuke from the state’s former energy chief, Ian Bowles, who called Coakley’s comments “shameless grandstanding” and “misleading.” Bowles argued that electricity costs had fallen 40 percent in recent years and energy laws had helped save $9 billion in potential costs.

Eyeing a legislative conference committee that is grappling with a proposal to bar third-time violent felons from seeking parole and a slew of other crime proposals, the Patrick administration rolled out a report Thursday – if inauspiciously – warning that prison overcrowding and soaring costs on corrections amount to a $2.3 billion problem for state officials over the next decade

Mary Beth Heffernan, the state secretary of public safety, pointed to that fiscal challenge to call for a proposal that would expand the capacity of state prisons, reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to direct drug addicts into treatment, rather than jail.

“It's just an unsustainable burden on the state, something we're joined in by many states. We can't build our way out of the problem,” she said.

Negotiations on the crime package, the purview of six lawmakers appointed by legislative leadership, drew the eye of the governor, who said he’s reached out to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, as well as conference committee heads, to encourage them to couple any crackdown on habitual offenders with policies to “move out people who are not dangerous.” To be clear, that would be moving them out of correctional facilities.

Earlier Thursday, Patrick held a ceremonial bill-signing with advocates for protecting transgender residents in the state’s non-discrimination statutes. Although he signed the actual law around Thanksgiving, the signing drew Attorney General Coakley, Auditor Suzanne Bump, Speaker DeLeo and a slew of lawmakers to the Senate chamber, where Patrick inked the mock legislation.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers return to Hill under cloudy economic skies.

WORCESTER BROWN: U.S. Sen. Scott Brown set up shop in the front yard of Lt. Gov. Tim Murray – he of “Last-minute Larry” coinage – to launch his bid for a full six-year term on Thursday. Polls show he’ll be locked in a tight race with Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who showcased her fundraising prowess this week with a $1 million money bomb on the same day of Brown’s launch. Both events coincided with Brown’s election to the Senate, which upended all political assumptions and foreshadowed steep losses for Democrats in Congress in 2010. The Warren-Brown showdown has already garnered intense national interest and could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate in 2013.

This program aired on January 20, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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