State House Roundup: The Petruccelli Sequence

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How do you like Scott Brown now?

There was an argument to be made during the Beacon Hill service of Scott Brown, now a U.S. senator, that his vote was one of the least-valued in the Legislature. A dogged pursuant of benefits for his district, he was nonetheless the junior member of the sound-and-fury minority caucus of five Republican senators. If Senate President Therese Murray wanted to listen to him, she could. If she wanted to roll her eyes at him, she could. And did.

Now it is Scott Brown who stands, fully clothed, amid the national maelstrom of revenue paucity, cheered from the right for his defiance of deficit-deepening spending, and absolutely pounded back home for his refusal to vote in favor of $687 million in budget-balancing aid for his home state, money his old GOP band of brothers is calling a handout.

It was perhaps the most precarious week of Brown’s tenure – bigger than his vote on the president’s labor appointee, dicier than his long-promised “nay” on health care expansion, more crucial in a funding sense than the February jobs bill. And if he is to continue balancing intergalactic political celebrity with home-state affection, he’s going to need some of the people who voted for him to get his back. It will not do for one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world to get called out on the floor of the Massachusetts House of Representatives by Rep. Carl Sciortino as someone who should be voted out of office. More befitting the junior senator's status was the defense from Rep. Christopher Fallon, Scott Brown Democrat of Malden, who called Sciortino's slam "unconscionable" and “cowardly.”

The House floor was the setting Thursday for arguments over the state budget, Republicans charging that Democrats had been foolish in banking on $687 million in unrealized federal funds, and questioning the validity of the negotiating team’s final product, which washes away or at least blurs the red ink by drawing $100 million from reserves, further taking down spending, and leaning on adjusted revenue estimates. Democrats, pointing to a stomach-flipping drop in tax revenues, pretty much threw up their hands and said they’d done the best they could, explaining a cute and novel “fund split” technique they’d deployed in case the money eventually does arrive.


Over in the Upper Chamber, there was some GOP squalling over the budget but it was sandwiched by casino combat, choked off late Friday afternoon for a Saturday session and, in all likelihood, completion of the debate next week. Man in the news: Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, Democrat of East Boston, and sponsor of two tectonic-shifting amendments, one of which drew intense scrutiny and the other of which attracted virtually none, publicly anyway. They enshrined in the Senate measure the pressure points that could prove essential to the final resolution of the gambling question in Massachusetts.

While much of the media attention fixated on whether the Senate would outlaw smoking in the three casinos its bill would create – a matter still in question by the end of the week – the first Petruccelli amendment confined to one ward in large cities the referendum decision on whether to site a casino in that ward. Say, for instance, Suffolk Downs in Ward 1 of Boston. This fortifies the Suffolk asset, because it means that people in Jamaica Plain and Allston won’t have a say in putting that investment at risk. The amendment made it handily through two roll calls, despite Sen. Bruce Tarr’s wry observation Thursday of Petruccelli’s “articulation of the city of Boston's unique version of federalism.”

The second one was voice-voted through, adding to the 16-bullet list of criteria “how well the proposal preserves and enhances the live horse racing industry.” Say, for instance, of the proposal were to be issued by a horse track.

The oddsmakers of the future at these closer-than-ever gambling Xanadus will look back on these amendments’ prospects in conference committee and giggle, much like their present-day counterparts with the sharp suits and retainers are doing now. One voice-voted and one double-roll-called Senate amendment boosting the prospects for a casino – with slot machines – in the speaker’s district. Odds: good.

Granting itself maximum flexibility in conference, the Senate opted to knock down racetrack slot machines with a lopsided standing vote, which meant that no one had to go on the record but still sent the House the message that racinos don’t have Senate backing, a dynamic drained of great practical import by the Petruccelli amendments.

This time of year, policy questions that on their own dominated weeks earlier in the session get footnoted in the frenzy and lost, as the Great Policy Swap Meet of 2010 had its biggest week yet, though by no means its last. Herewith, then, a rundown:

-- Beacon Hill and Evacuation holidays sank soundlessly in conference committee, conferees preserving their status as holidays but disemboweling their vacation-granting superpowers.

-- The Senate’s eye-popping crackdown on illegal immigrants went squishy in conference, its toothiest provisions – a 24-hour snitch line, an enforcement MOU with the feds, and a statutory prohibition against in-state public higher education tuition rates for illegal immigrants – stripped out, leaving codification of roadblocks to state services the governor says already exist. Legal immigrants did not fare as well, watching $56 million in health care spending for about 20,000 people gored from the final budget.

-- A House business tax break and economic development bureaucracy restructuring omnibus measure contained, as its final bullet point, a repeal of the ban against gifts from pharma to doctors. The bill looked like it would come out of House Ways and Means Friday, and could pass next week. Universal health care advocates called the move an effort to “undo the state’s commitment to health reform” and called the ban effective in curbing prescription costs, brushing off restaurant profit declines as marks of the recession. Repeal proponents said the gift ban has cost local businesses.

-- Check out the drama over at the Division of Insurance! Who knew these guys had this much soap opera in them? On Thursday, DOI regulators mutinied, storming the Bastille of health insurance rate premium caps, the signature policy rollout of Gov. Deval Patrick’s reelection campaign. Three hearing officers - Jean Farrington, Stephen Sumner and Susan Donegan – turned Insurance Commissioner Joseph Murphy’s rejection of Harvard Pilgrim rate hikes into Swiss cheese, and drew swift rebukes from their boss’s boss and their boss’s boss’s boss. The imbroglio over price controls continues to have courts written all over it, and it's unclear whether it's Patrick or the insurers who'll take a licking.

-- Big win for the municipal worker unions in the budget conference committee, which kiboshed a Senate plan to empower city and town managers to design, unilaterally, public employee health care co-pays and deductibles, a measure local officials said could save $100 million annually.

-- Legislation aimed at creating safer Bay State drivers came hauling out of conference committee after 105 days, bereft of a ban on handheld devices for adult drivers, but just that for junior operators along with a texting prohibition for all drivers. Elderly drivers 75 and up would need to renew licenses in person and take eye exams every five years – and lawmakers frantically waved attention to the political cover they’d lined up in the form of every senior citizen group imaginable. The bill also instructs the Registry to come up with regulations to target cognitive and functional impairments. Patrick has been supportive of the bill.

-- Yet another public opinion survey depicting Patrick with a lead, albeit winnowing, over an advancing Republican Charles Baker, with Independent Treasurer Timothy Cahill a distant third, and Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein behind him.

-- Provincetown walked back its intention of furnishing free condoms to pre-schoolers, a policy that, frankly, defies parody.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Brown at the crossroads.

BLACK SWAN ALERT: A conference committee on sweeping criminal justice policy changes was OPEN TO THE PUBLIC Thursday, a startling departure from both recent legislative tradition and the wont of the Judiciary Committee, which has been slammed for opaqueness in recent years. Senators are pressing mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, while the House favors a narrower effort aimed at changing the way the state administers criminal records. Personal relations between the two lead conferees, Sen. Cindy Creem and Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, are such that they may at some point require a criminal record of some sort, so permitting the gawkers in the press and legislative advocacy community into the proceedings was probably a good idea.

RULES ARE RULES, BRO: What’s Jennifer Nassour beef with icing? The state Republican Party chairwoman must be opposed to getting iced – a southern college fad gone viral during which the victim is surprised with a Smirnoff Ice malt beverage and forced to drop to one knee and finish the drink while being taunted and, often, called “bro” – based on her charge Tuesday morning that the State House is, in fact, a frat house. Speaking to a Mass. Women’s Political Caucus breakfast, Nassour said, “It's like a big frat house. It's almost ridiculous when you see the back-patting and you're waiting for the butt-patting.” Perhaps Nassour was thinking of the “Animal House” session a few years ago, whose casualties included the hair from the leg of one young, dozing male lawmaker. Or perhaps the daily, frattastic goings-on.

This program aired on June 25, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.