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By Meghna Chakrabarti (The Third Rail)
We at the Third Rail wish it weren't so. But the backroom battles, horsetrades and handshakes have finally piqued our attention. That's mostly because after months of sniping over meaning and mantras, where "reform before revenue" jumped from legislative lips and echoed down the granite halls, transportation reform might finally... finally... emerge from conference committee and land on the governor's desk.
That's what we were lead to believe. Facing down a July 1 toll hike deadline, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Monday that a Tuesday vote would be likely. Hours later both House and Senate canceled the Tuesday votes.
The legislation - which, if passed, would be the most significant reform of the state's transportation bureaucracy in a generation - would abolish the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and trim employee benefits at transportation agencies.
It's that last issue which seems to be a major sticking point, as State House News Service's Jim O'Sullivan notes:
The House and Senate have yet to finalize agreement on how aggressively to target the benefits of current Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority workers. The House insists on requiring them to join the statewide health insurance program at the start of fiscal 2011, while the Senate version relies on an actuarial study proving that measure's cost effectiveness.
Now, the bill waits until Thursday to make its grand debut. Legislative rules require that conference committee reports be submitted to house and senate clerks by 8 p.m. That's 8 p.m. the night before the vote. The thinking is that would give legislators sufficient notice before the vote. To read the legislation, perhaps? Given that the original Senate and House transportation reform bills numbered in the hundreds of pages, the Third Rail is considering an informal poll of lawmakers to see how many people read what they're voting on.
Meanwhile, there's ongoing friction between transportation committee co-chairs and Governor Deval Patrick who balks at the committee's habit of closing the door to the governor's legislative aides.
"Look, in an ideal world, we'd see the bill, we'd be talking about specific language, we would contribute to that language, so we would all know where we were going and whether or not we were on a collision course," Patrick said. "We have not gotten that level of - we haven't gotten that yet from the transportation chair."
Patrick and transportation committee co-chair Representative Joseph Wagner met in Patrick's office last Thursday.
"I have two recollections about the meeting," Wagner said. "The first is that we had agreed that outside of that room we weren't going to talk about the meeting. And my second recollection is that it was very informative, at least from my point of view."
From the Third Rail's point of view, what a long, strange road transportation reform is taking in the Commonwealth. As our supervisor noted Tuesday, there's been a lot of activity in recent days, but it's "been in circles and all in neutral."
Reporter's Note: We'd like to thank, yet again, the staff at State House News Service for their tireless efforts in scorekeeping the endless back-and-forths on Beacon Hill.
This program aired on June 16, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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