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Forces to change leadership at the troubled child welfare department coalesced this week with a ferocity that not even a reluctant governor could withstand, the fire set by a usually slow-to-rouse House Speaker Robert DeLeo who also had budgetary matters on the mind – 1,175 to be exact.
House leaders have turned the annual budget debate process into a finely tuned assembly line. Not even a few hundred more amendments than average – 1,175 in total this year – or a fire-alarm shortened first night could force a fourth day of debate as the House wrapped up just after midnight on Wednesday.
Between infrequent floor debates, representatives dutifully marched off to the House Members Lounge where bulk amendments assembled by category were privately discussed, packaged and shipped back to the floor where they were received by members anxiously flipping through the pages to see if their proposals had made the cut.
By adding $144 million to the bottom line over the course of the week, the House ultimately approved a $36.3 billion spending proposal for fiscal 2014 that now goes to the Senate for review and another rewrite.
The House added money for early education and hiring more social workers, gave a green light to a two-month tax amnesty program and even included a section that would end the interstate blockade on direct shipments of wine to Massachusetts drinkers.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones said the tax amnesty program, which would allow the Department of Revenue to pick a window when scofflaws could pay their back taxes without paying late penalties, could net as much as $100 million. By the end of the week, it became clear that the state might need that money more than it once thought.
Administration and Finance Secretary Glen Shor confirmed that April revenues are $107 million short of expectations after Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer described the outlook for the month as “bleak.” Tax collections are still $117 million above upwardly revised estimates for the year, but Brewer cautioned that any “exuberance” over surplus cash available to be spent in fiscal 2014 must be now be tempered.
One of the fiercest debates of the week came in response to Rep. Jim Lyons’ proposal to ban in-state tuition for non-legal residents and stop a practice Gov. Patrick put in place of offering the reduced tuition rates to certain qualifying immigrants given “deferred status” under a relatively new federal immigration policy.
In the end Lyons’ fight was in vain, but once upon a time DeLeo might have agreed with the conservative Republican. DeLeo in 2006 joined with 96 of his House colleagues to reject a bill that would have offered in-state tuition to qualifying undocumented immigrants, and in doing so broke with House Speaker Sal DiMasi who supported the bill. Times they are a changing.
After last weekend brought with it new reports that DCF staff had missed important clues in the days and weeks preceding two more child deaths – including a faxed report from Grafton police that was misplaced and unacted upon for a week –DeLeo had seen and heard enough.
With his House preparing to start its annual budget debate, DeLeo emerged from his office to call for Commissioner Olga Roche’s resignation, and in doing so set off a mudslide of similar demands that Roche be replaced as head of DCF.
Patrick accepted Roche’s resignation Tuesday and his frustration and disappointment was palpable, though not necessarily centered around Roche. Patrick said his confidence in DCF had been “rattled” by the new cases, but removing Roche was an action that had been forced upon the governor, and not one he embraced.
"I believe that before we find fault there ought to be a fair opportunity to gather the facts and assess accountability, that there ought to be some direct connection between failure and fault. Unfortunately, DCF doesn't operate in that kind of environment today," Patrick said.
But even the governor, after months of defending his commissioner’s expertise, admitted that Roche could “no longer command the trust of the public or the confidence of her line staff.”
Replaced by former RMV chief of staff Erin Deveney, Roche has merely stepped into the shadows for now, continuing to advise the administration and receive her $138,000 salary for how long no one is quite sure.
While the administration dealt with DCF fallout and the House zeroed in on its budget, ballot campaigns eyed a deadline next week when, barring legislative action, they can begin collecting the additional 11,485 signatures needed for the ballot. Rep. Geoff Diehl, one of the leading voices behind the gas tax indexing repeal effort, made waves when he released an internal MassDOT email sent by a senior communications official detailing the talking points Patrick administration officials should refer to as part of a “push” to defeat the question.
While Diehl and others alleged violations of ethics laws for using public resources for campaigning, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey argued there was nothing untoward about the email, or the apparently coordinated effort within MassDOT to become the information hub for pro-gas tax forces.
It’ll be up to the Ethics Commission to sort out this mini-scandal, but let’s not forget that Diehl might know a thing to two about this particular conflict of interest law. The Whitman Republican bumped up against it himself in 2011 when he asked school officials to send fundraiser fliers home to families in the backpacks of Whitman third graders.
The Gaming Commission delayed a decision for a week on Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s push to be considered a host community for casino projects under consideration in Everett and Revere. That would put the city in a stronger position to negotiate for mitigation but could also jeopardize both projects, which would have to be approved by voters in the city who already rejected a Suffolk Downs casino in East Boston.
The decision to postpone a vote and give the mayor and developers another week to negotiate came after Gov. Deval Patrick made a call to Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby. As tensions between Walsh and Crosby have built over the past few weeks, Patrick has said he sometimes wishes everyone could “start over.” But even given his desire for letting emotions cool, his decision to insert himself in the process bears noting given the governor’s penchant for publicly taking a hands-off approach toward the licensing process.
That’s why the state created a Gaming Commission, he frequently says, so the governor doesn’t have to get involved. Until he does.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The magic of the House Member’s Lounge, which is apparently where the money is, yielded $144 million in additional election-year spending for the $36.3 billion budget bill headed to the Senate.