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State House Roundup: The Power Lines

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Whether the storm crashes on Bay State shores — with what velocity and power and how deep inland the weather goes — remained unknown at press time, subject to untold factors largely beyond the control of those in its speculative path, not least of which were broader climatic trends.

And then there was Earl, trucking up the coast.

The quadrennial race for who gets to sign budgets and appoint judges — and, in the case of the lieutenant governor, play Nurse Ratched to the occasionally misanthropic entity known as the Governor’s Council — isn’t supposed to start in earnest until after Labor Day. It’s supposed to prompt speculation about whether voters who waited too long to tune in can manage to pay sufficient attention while getting distracted by the Sox’ pennant drive, though that doesn’t seem much of a problem this year.

Surely, this one will work up continued momentum next week, when the gubernatorial candidates debate for the first time on TV. But it didn’t escape notice that this week had a decisively post-Labor Day feel to it. Both the Democratic candidates for state treasurer are on the air. Democratic candidates for state auditor are proving their investigative mettle by dropping enough opposition research on opponents to choke a whole team of auditors, even those at newly elevated salaries.

And the approaching hurricane, named Earl, may have expedited things a little. Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker joined the newly thickened air brigade Friday, posting an ad packed with one-line soundbites, cleverly packaged through the mouths of just folks, an adroit avoidance of having the candidate himself deliver the generalities. Cahill’s campaign circulated ads due to go up Saturday, again playing the daughters card in 15 seconds of “Father Knows Best” and explaining his choice to run unenrolled.

Gird your airwaves — or is that coaxials? The prospect of besieged voters trapped inside by the impending weather, fiercely tuned to their local news stations, may have proved irresistible. More eyeball-bang for your buck.

Baker caught some good surf — sorry — Friday with a new poll showing him within two points of Gov. Deval Patrick if “lean voters” were included, an electoral Venn diagram that left Independent Treasurer Timothy Cahill in rough shape, down to eight points, less than a fifth of Baker’s showing.

New campaign finance figures show Patrick having solved, for August anyway, much of his fundraising problem, leaning on star wattage like singer John Legend and Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, and the trusty fundraising mechanisms of Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and the state Democratic Party. The Patrick-Murray ticket still trails Baker and running mate Richard Tisei in fundraising year-to-date, and has less cash on hand.

Cahill and Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein on Tuesday signed into a public financing arrangement, agreeing to $1.5 million spending limits as a way of accessing up to $750,000 in public funds, though the spending cap will increase once Baker and Patrick establish their own expenditure ceilings.

Further evidence of the acceleration came in the form of Cahill, the state’s chief financial officer, careening into the headline buzzsaw of unpaid taxes on campaign funds. Baker pointed out that the news coincided with Cahill’s acceptance of the taxpayer dollars for his campaign, an untidy coincidence for the treasurer. A day later, a declining regional broadsheet reported that Murray and Democratic auditor candidate Guy Glodis, sheriff of Worcester County, had also failed to pay taxes on campaign investments. Paying taxes seems a rather elementary task of campaign management, particularly for candidates hoping to depict themselves as solid fiscal managers, as all three are. Taxes are one of two certainties, and the other ain’t all that appealing, either.

Actual policy differences sharpened this week, too. Both Baker and Cahill said they would revisit the regional greenhouse gas pact into which Patrick inked the Commonwealth as one of his first acts of office in 2007. The governor went wobbly on whether he would follow through with a sales tax rollback if voters mandate it in November, labeling such a cut “calamitous” to state services. Both Baker and Cahill held up the will of the electorate as the law of the land — as did Stein, who gave perhaps the most candid answer, explaining that she’d twin the cut with a fuller tax package freighted with a heftier burden on the wealthiest.

Baker zinged Patrick over the reddening state budget, now teetering nearly $300 million in state money out of balance thanks largely to an underfunded Medicaid account. Legislative budget writers want to patch this, along with the remaining deficits from last fiscal year, within the next two weeks, a little fiscal sewing they think can be accomplished without summoning the rank and file back into formal sessions. After that exercise, there will likely be follow-up supplemental spending efforts later in the year.

The latest round of fiscal news has been lousy. July foreclosures spiked nearly 80 percent from the year before, it emerged this week, and August tax revenues underperformed expectations by $70 million, putting receipts $8 million above benchmark through the first two months of the fiscal year. And unemployment here is higher than in all other New England states save Rhode Island.

All tossed into the welter of what’s become an especially interesting campaign, increasingly tough to forecast, enormously expensive and just getting better.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Storm clouds are raging all around our door.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We presume that the Legislature acts with full knowledge of existing laws.” — Justice Margot Botsford, writing for the majority in the Supreme Judicial Court ruling, a 4-2 split decision, to approve the permitting process behind Cape Wind. Whoa there, Judge. Her Honor might want to spend a little time in the House Gallery in the closing hours of formal sessions. Not only are lawmakers, most of them, acting without full knowledge of existing laws, they’re not even acting with half knowledge of the nascent laws in front of them. This is what happens when the three discrete branches of government do not sufficiently familiarize themselves with the other. Maybe that’s what Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati is trying to do with the alleged dousing of the Probation Department payroll with his patronage hires. Familiarize the Legislature with the inner machinations of the criminal justice side of things. All in the name of good government.

TEARS IN HIS EYES, I GUESS: It wasn’t all serious campaigning. The campaigns had madcap fun with his decision to go Country Club Republican — the club being Bushwood and Republican only in the sense that pools that have been scrubbed, sterilized and disinfected are. Baker has been going around this nape of the woods with the actor who played Spaulding, the odious grandson character, prompting the Dems to lampoon Baker as the personality heir to Judge Smails. Looking to ground the flying WASP?

This program aired on September 3, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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