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State House Roundup: A Snakepit Or A Foxhole?

This article is more than 10 years old.

One week left, the politics of intractability is taking prominent residence on a thickly settled public agenda.

The governor was visiting troops in the Middle East. The state's new ruling board on education policy went all-in for nationalized education standards, rather than the localized set in place for over a decade. The House passed a bill it said would check health care price jumps for small businesses, while senators looked down their noses. The state's senior senator turns out to be saving a half-mil in state taxes by docking his $7 million dory in Rhode Island. And the state's chief justice, who authored the most-covered court opinion in Massachusetts history, announced she'd be hanging up her gavel at the end of October.

And none of that received as much attention as the contest of principals over the expanded gambling bill, negotiations of comedic volatility, as the two sides at one point couldn't even agree on whether the Senate had discarded a House proposal or just said they'd think about it.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education inked the state into the national Common Core standards, imposing changes to the highly touted MCAS system and opening the door to replacing — perhaps, eventually — the MCAS altogether. Republican Charles Baker and Independent Timothy Cahill said this was a very bad idea, indeed, the governor giving away the store to the teachers' unions, who go big for the guv and have never cared much for the MCAS. Gov. Deval Patrick, via satellite from the Mideast, phoned home with the interpretation that the national policy would improve student performance and adult accountability. About as unknowable a he said/they said as it gets.

The House and Senate are so far apart on health care legislation that — well, don't worry about it. Perhaps the only way a health care bill makes it through this session is if they replace the cherries on each off the 10,000 new slot machines across the state with House Speaker Robert DeLeo's smiling face, then maybe he gives Senate President Therese Murray her hospital assessment and cap on administrative overhead for insurers.

Margaret Marshall, the South African native who was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1996 and its chief by Gov. Paul Cellucci in 1999 — at a time when Massachusetts Republicans were worried about the party's standing with women, a concern rendered acute after the Massport boss and former GOP congressman Peter Blute was photographed by the Boston Herald on a booze cruise, alongside a woman, named Gidget, lifting up her shirt, on a weekday — knows how to throw a press conference. No leakage, barely even let the governor know, just instruct the press people to call reporters and tell them it's important so they should show up, then throw front-page news at them.

Marshall's top-line legacy is Goodridge, her authorship of the majority opinion in the 2003 SJC decision that, essentially, created gay marriage. Marshall's ruling, that denying same-sex couples the right to wed violated the state Constitution's guarantee to equal protection and due process, touched off years of political and legal wrangling at the state level and still reverberates nationally, where gay rights issues are far less settled than they are here.

On Friday, the Track Gals outed Sen. John Kerry for keeping the Isabel, 76 feet of New Zealand-built sloop, in Newport, where he does not have to pay the initial sales or the follow-up excise taxes on the modest vessel.

And, as the sands struck the bottom of the glass on the legislating portion of Patrick's term, none of it occupied the klieg-lit arena enjoyed by gambling, which has been both the plug and the spur in the legislative pipeline. One more time: the House wants four racetracks with slot machines and two casinos, the Senate wants no "racinos," and three casinos spread across discrete geographic zones. Both have edged closer to the other, and results are being, you know, efforted, but the House negotiators who came out of Friday morning's meeting did so grimly.

From the desert, Patrick rattled his saber a little bit, saying lawmakers should send him something they know he'll sign unless they're sure they have veto-proofed the bill on both sides of the capitol's third floor.

Opponents of expanded gambling, who point to negative social and economic consequences as reason enough not to sanction either casinos or slot parlors, began hoping that the inevitable might, in fact, not come to pass, that the roll-over resistors in the House and the far more ferocious critics in the Senate might, through no real conquest of their own, acquire the desired result, the defining image of the session being Matt Patrick and Sue Tucker circling the walls, dragging the carcass of DeLeo's legislative agenda behind their chariot.

By contrast, there were hugs and bon mots Thursday at the maiden meeting of the economic development bill conference committee, discourses on how hot it could get in fifth-floor conference rooms with the sun glinting off The Dome and feeble attempts at humor.

"You can't kill a corporation," mused Sen. Benjamin Downing, the Benator, Democrat of Pittsfield.

"Oh, you're doing a good job, trust me," retorted Sen. Bruce Tarr, Republican of Gloucester. General laughter, merriment.

The acrimony is less between the two parties than it is the two chambers, concern among aides not so much about how their chamber is being viewed in the press as long as the other side is viewed worse. Senate officials for months have been griping quietly that the House has been sitting on crates of legislation that's been sent its way. As seemingly intractable as the gambling conference is one stuck on criminal justice policy changes. The House didn't vote this session on reduced prison time for non-violent drug offenders, a key priority of Senate conferees, and that refusal to take up sentencing reform has proved a hurdle for final agreement on the crime bill.

This gets at the Big Lie of one-party hegemony on the Hill, where, to borrow a phrase, the opposing party in one's own chamber is regarded as merely the opposition and not the enemy, a distinction reserved - particularly in that exquisite quadrennial moment, with a week to go before grades close and the report cards go to the voters - for the other branch.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The hour's getting late, and State House denizens began showing signs of strain.

THE STAKES: The East Boston Times-Free Press is not a word-wasting outfit, an admirable quality evinced thoroughly in Tuesday's editorial predicting agreement and signage of the gambling bill, "After all, it can't be any other way," the paper decided. "Everyone has to walk away from the negotiating table feeling that the right thing was done and that all parties were treated fairly. What Speaker DeLeo cannot afford is to become the guy who buried the expanded gaming bill because he was unwilling to alter his position like President Woodrow Wilson did with the U.S. Senate over ratification of the Treaty that ended World War I and kept America from participating in the League of Nations that many considered sowed the seeds for World War II." Well. This is what's known within the industry as "muscular prose." The League of Nations tie-in is applicable in only a few state legislative situations, and expanded gambling is most certainly one of them. Equally relevant historical links include the Battle of Jericho, the Reformation, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It was unclear at press time whether the Eastie paper was seeking to take the whole Woodrow Wilson thing a step further and imply that DeLeo was a far-seeing bespectacled leader who let a strong woman run the show.

This program aired on July 23, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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