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State House Roundup: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The one-two punch delivered this week by Gov. Deval Patrick with his annual address to the Legislature followed by the rollout of the governor’s budget cemented in the minds of anyone just tuning in what has been obvious on Beacon Hill for months: 2012 will be all about health care.

If rising Medicaid costs, coupled with a few other budget busters, consuming nearly all of the state’s “faster, stronger” economic growth of the past year wasn’t enough, Rep. Steven Walsh confidently declared to the state’s biotech execs that the House would deliver the "boldest and most aggressive health care bill ever filed" this session.

One of the key phrases in the message from Walsh, the co-chairman of the Health Care Financing Committee, was “this session,” piling on the non-committal responses from legislative leaders this week to a series of demands from the Corner Office.

Patrick used his annual address on Monday night to lay out a non-jarring agenda for the election year-shortened legislative calendar that focused on two issues long in the works on Beacon Hill, and a third proposal to streamline the community college system that even he acknowledged could be D.O.A.

Together with the kickoff to the budget cycle, the event was just about the only thing that could get people to stop talking about Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, whose political prospects have dimmed over evolving accusations surrounding his relationship with disgraced former Chelsea Housing Authority director Michael McLaughlin.

Murray this week denied knowing anything about a report in the Boston Globe that McLaughlin may have illegally raised money for his campaign, and requested an investigation by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. But Gov. Patrick’s defense of his lieutenant and suggestion that it was “time to move” fell on deaf ears.

In his televised address, Patrick asked legislators to advance his health care payment reform bill by April, a deadline Walsh called “arbitrary” and one Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray brushed past in responses that focused on their commitment to address payment reform before August.

The legislative duo also pronounced themselves unready to commit to Patrick’s promise of a $145 million uptick in public school aid in fiscal 2013, issuing an annual reminder that in the political dynamics on Beacon Hill, turf trumps party every time.

Community colleges are now the talk of the country after President Barack Obama, a day after Patrick, also highlighted the importance of leaning on those institutions for skills training in the State of the Union, a common theme Patrick described as “a happy coincidence.”

In one breath, Patrick responded to Obama’s speech with a statement slamming Congress by comparison proclaiming, “Here in Massachusetts, we continue to lead the nation in job creation, student achievement and health care because I have a legislature that works alongside me, not against me.”

Yet by Thursday, discussing his proposal to consolidate control of the state’s community colleges to focus on job training, Patrick was predicting “a blood fight back on Beacon Hill.”

The governor’s proposal called for consolidating oversight of the state’s community colleges under the Board of Higher Education to better align curriculums for skills training to fill 120,000 jobs that he says are vacant but available.

From the governor who once called for universal education from pre-kindergarten through college, including an endorsement of offering free community college to all of the state's high school graduates as part of a 10-year plan, the proposal seemed like a recalibrated mission statement.

So what happened to free community college tuition? “The recession happened,” one top Patrick aide said after the speech.

Weeks of expectation setting by the administration culminated on Wednesday in the release of Patrick’s annual spending blueprint, a $32.3 billion document - Patrick’s sixth budget in office, leaving him with just two more cycles to cement his legacy before “The Long Walk.”

Despite a public school aid boost, $11 million for community colleges and $11.25 for veterans and their families, the eventual rollout seemed almost overshadowed by the cuts needed to make those investments possible.

The repeated mantra from the legislative leaders and the administration about how health care, pension, labor and debt costs have outpaced revenue growth precipitated proposals to raise $260 million in new revenue, including a 50-cent hike in the cigarette tax. The blueprint also draws $400 million from the “rainy day” account, eliminates 400 executive branch jobs, closes a prison and a mental health hospital and cuts funding to the Department of Transportation and programs like elder lunches.

Not all were easily digested: “This literally is taking food off the table for older people,” Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care, said in a statement.

Notwithstanding Democratic Sen. Richard Moore’s slap that Patrick was leading the state in the “wrong direction,” Republicans in the House and Senate also began to voice frustration with Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill that more wasn’t being done so far in 2012 to address job growth, with few proposals on the horizon.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones said Patrick’s speech failed to focus enough on the one issue foremost in the public’s mind, and Rep. Daniel Winslow echoed the reported election-year anxieties in Congress about the light agenda in the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

“Saw a friend yesterday. He just lost his job at the bank after 19 yrs. After 1 yr in House, why no jobs votes (except casinos)?” Winslow tweeted this week.

One thing that can be said with certainty about Patrick’s speech in the House chamber on Monday: everyone there heard it.

The same cannot be said for infrequent debate in the House, which freshman Democrat Rep. Denise Andrews complained this week to be nearly inaudible to her colleagues who are too busy chatting, catching up with one another, and typing on their smartphones.

So distracted are some members that many had to hear about Andrews lament delivered from the floor after the fact. And they were on the House floor when it happened.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Patrick budget filed, filed away. House up next.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: In five words, Senate President Therese Murray articulated why reconciling a sentencing reform bill in the Legislature could take longer than desired. “Selling drugs is selling death,” she said. Though the Senate bill reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, increases drug amounts that trigger mandatory minimums, and shrinks the size of school zones within which drug offenders receive stiff mandatory minimum sentences, many lawmakers, including Murray, are not quick to dismiss drug offenders who disproportionately populate Bay State prisons as non-violent.

PLACE YOUR BETS: Forty Colorado steaks arrived at City Hall from Denver this week, courtesy of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock making good on his bet with Mayor Thomas Menino following the drubbing by the New England Patriots of Hancock’s Broncos two weeks ago. With the Patriots now set for a clash with The New York Football Giants, it’s time for pols to place their bets – for charity, of course. Menino sent the steaks to St. Mary’s Women & Children’s Center in Dorchester, and there’s no word yet on whether Medford native Michael Bloomberg wants to wager against the Pats. The other conundrum, assuming Gov. Deval Patrick is feeling confident, is who to make the bet with. While the Giants play in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie called sporting bets “stupid” and suggested he’d only get involved if Patrick “challenged his manhood” or “shames me into it.” Unlikely. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, might be game, suggesting New England is embarrassed by its three-time champions. “Why didn't Massachusetts say, 'It's our team?' Massachusetts Patriots. Vermont Patriots. New Hampshire Patriots. They all have semi-deniability, that's what I think this is,” Cuomo said. Your move, Gov. Patrick.

This program aired on January 27, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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