New House Speaker Candid On Current, Future Challenges07:16

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Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo (Sarah Bush/WBUR)
Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo (Sarah Bush/WBUR)

House Speaker Robert DeLeo is wrapping up a fast-paced first six months. The Legislature sent the governor ethics, pension and transportation overhauls while repeatedly slashing the state budget as revenues fell short of expectations.

And the heat is still on. There are more bad revenue numbers as lawmakers try to close the budget for the fiscal year that ended last week.

DeLeo joined us to discuss the state's shaky financial health, the upcoming gambling debate and leadership challenges.

Bob Oakes: You've been in public service for many years now, hoping, as I imagine, to do as much as good as possible. And yet in your first few months in this job you've been forced to decide whose priorities to cut and how to preserve basic state services with less money. This can't exactly be the situation you imagined when you were first thinking you wanted to be House speaker.

Robert DeLeo: I have seen it to be a time of great opportunity. When I was sworn in on January 28, Bob, I talked about the need to address certain issues — ethics reform, transportation reform, pension reform and, of course, the budget.

With the issues swirling around the building, it's been very difficult making decisions in terms of budget cuts. But on the other hand, it did give us the opportunity to bring in certain reforms that in better fiscal times we might not have been able to do.

June revenues, as we know now, are coming in short. Gov. Patrick vetoed $147 million from the budget that was recently passed. Health care advocates are demanding the Legislature restore money to cover low-income legal immigrants. What are you going to do about the governor's budget vetoes and what about health care coverage for legal immigrants?

By vetoing those items, he's given us the opportunity to provide health insurance to legal immigrants. I don't think there's anyone in this building opposed to doing that. On the other hand, our health insurance bill now in effect does provide services for legal immigrants. The elder, the young, the pregnant — so there is somewhat of a safety net for these folks now.

Having said that, the concern that I have is, as a result of providing the funds to do that, the governor has vetoed some very important line items in the budget. For instance, money for housing; for rental assistance; senior care; substance abuse; for nurses for folks who have been molested or raped.

These are a whole host of tough decisions that we're going to have to make. But this has been a budget of compromise, so I think on the whole we played it pretty well.

Some people are worried the state will not be able to maintain its commitment to our near-universal health coverage under our health care reform law. Is there a risk that health care reform might be a casualty of the recession and the incredibly tight state budget?

Money is an issue. I think we're all commited to keep the program, on the other hand we're going to have to try to find places to save.

Another budget question: The numbers now seem to indicate that the state's rainy day fund may drop below $500 million after the books are closed on fiscal 2009, which would be down from $2.1 billion last July. Are you worried that the rainy day fund may completely dry up and be gone by, say, a year from now?

That is a concern. We've come to a time right now where I don't think we can afford to get it below the $500 million mark and to completely wipe it out. And I say that because -- if we're in a situation wherein we saw that the economy was starting to turn around, I might say, well, we can plan for the future, we can plan to put some of those funds back in to the rainy day fund, but I don't see that, so — for us to go below the half-billion dollar mark, or to completely evaporate the rainy day fund, I think would be a very serious situation, and I think we'd almost be at the point where we'd have to make more cuts as opposed to taking money from the rainy day fund.

If you're not tapping that money — which has been used to stave off some cuts — then you have to cut deeper into the state budget.

There's only two ways of doing it: Raising additional revenue through taxes, or taking money from the rainy day fund. And I don't see the rainy day fund now as an option, and I really don't see any appetite at all for an increase or any discussion relative to increasing any further taxes.

Let's switch to talking about gambling. It's going to be a hot topic this fall on Beacon Hill. Will there be slots and/or casinos in Massachusetts' future.

I look at increased gaming — I should say, first of all, slots at the tracks — as an important economic engine, but only one economic engine. I have been a person who has not been as sold on the destination casino plan, although I am open to the destination casino here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Does that mean that any package -- if there is one for a destination resort casino -- has to have a component that includes slot machines at racetracks, if that package is going to get your support?

Yes. That's going to have to be the initial threshold.

The debate over gambling certainly revealed fractures between not only individual lawmakers, but between the House, the Senate and the executive -- the governor's office.

And I'm wondering about those frayed relationships between legislators and the governor, which had become so established that you and others have joked about the tensions.

Here's what you said to a group of health care leaders in late spring: "First of all, to many people who are asking about the relationship between the Senate president and myself and the governor — Everything is fine, we're in intensive counseling right now as we speak. Things are going to be fine."

How's the counseling going? How would you describe the relationship now?

I'm laughing because every time I make a comment like that, the folks in the office say,"Why do you need to say that?" You know, in terms of the issues, I'd be less than honest if I say there haven't been disagreements on legislation.

But I think that if people take a look at the report card, they would have to agree that everyone worked together to get the job done.

Will you work for Gov. Patrick in his expected re-election bid next year, 2010?

I will support the Democratic nominee, which I expect will be Gov. Patrick.

As one of the top Democrats in the state, are you disappointed by state  Treasurer Timothy Cahill's move to abandon the Democratic Party, setting up an apparent independent bid by Cahill for governor next year?

I can't say I was shocked, but probably surprised that he did so. But that was his decision, which I appreciate.

Mistake by Cahill though?

Bottom line, without having some type of a party apparatus behind you, in a primary or in a final election, I think it's a very difficult task to overcome.

Speaker DeLeo, thank you very much, appreciate your time.

Pleasure, thanks for having me.

This program aired on July 10, 2009.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.