State House Roundup: The View From The Top

As Congress flailed wildly from afar, those lame ducks flapping their wings at a hummingbird's pace, the members of the Massachusetts Legislature floated slowly, serenely toward a new term, subpoenas and Christmas cards stacked higher than policy proposals in their election-year inboxes.

But then, Tuesday, they awoke, heads throbbing, eyes bleary, to a game-changing paradigm: the cliff has finally arrived, and the stewards of the taxpayers' wallets peeked over the edge.

It was nearly two years ago that Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative budget writers warned of a looming "cliff" - the moment when spending would no longer be backed by piles of one-time federal aid and the economy was not growing fast enough to keep spending up and core government functions operating.

That long-anticipated moment crystallized Tuesday, during a four-hour hearing featuring prognostications from an array of familiar economists and budget watchdogs. Looking down from the cliff, lawmakers appeared to see little in the way of potential new taxes, a diminished rainy day fund and no more cash handouts from Washington. They warned of an overtaxed populace, services already cut to the bone, and an explosion of fixed costs in Medicaid and the pension system that threaten to quickly swallow up even the modest growth that the economists are predicting for next year.

Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, the departing Senate budget chief, who just 18 months earlier threw his weight behind a sales tax hike, scoffed at the suggestion that Bay Staters could absorb a new round of tax hikes, foreclosing the option as politically risky - though none of his 32 incumbent colleagues lost their reelection bids despite passing $1 billion in new taxes.

Even before Tuesday's hearing began, the governor's top budget aide, Jay Gonzalez, warned of plans to shrink the size of the state budget by $1.5 billion next fiscal year, a nearly unheard-of prospect on modern-day Beacon Hill, where budget talks usually start with plans to locate revenues to fill gaps.

Asked about the administration's plans to cope with a smaller budget, Gonzalez talked up fundamental changes to the state's pension and health care systems, but he later acknowledged those were long-term suggestions unlikely to be reflected in the governor's next budget proposal, just six weeks away.

Like their Senate colleagues before them, the members of the House - the originator of most of state fiscal policies - convened Thursday to bid fawning farewells to their vanquished or departing colleagues. News that morning that the state's unemployment rate crept upward did little to dampen the revelry. The whimsical, often meandering speeches were punctuated by snappy one-liners from bombastic mainstays like James Fagan and Paul Kujawski, who saw their long political careers snipped by upstart Republicans.

The farewell speeches, 27 in all, were a compilation of inside jokes, bittersweet memories and promises to be back.

But in a moment of Homeric defiance, Rep. Matthew Patrick shirked the ceremonial niceties to decry what, from his view, is the decline of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the wake of a string of scandals.

"The Massachusetts House is now deeply wounded," he said, before launching into his take on the legislative experience.

"If you play your cards right, vote the right way, keep your criticisms to yourself, you have a chance of becoming a chairperson of a committee," he said, adding that eventually, "You find yourself not participating in debates, not even listening, because you and everyone else knows what the outcome will be. It's preordained. You continue to play the game until one day you find out that some lobbyists have more influence than you, and you ask yourself, is that right? Or you find out that your bill has been sidelined by someone quietly without explanation, or you are asked to vote for something you oppose … It's a system that has evolved over the decades and it is all that we know."

The speech evinced little noticeable reaction from his colleagues, who applauded politely and moved on to the next speaker.

The other Patrick in the building, the governor, largely stayed out of view this week, emerging briefly to describe a "scaled-down" inauguration ceremony scheduled for next month. But evidence that he's exerting a newfound confidence continued to ripple through the capitol in unlikely ways.

The clearest example this week came in the form of his judicial nominations. Two days before the Governor's Council put twice-nominated, once-failed judicial nominee Renee Dupuis through the wringer Thursday, Patrick tapped Heather Bradley, a Plymouth County prosecutor, for a seat on the Plymouth County District Court. Although Bradley - the wife of Hingham Democrat Rep. Garrett Bradley - comes with high-powered, bipartisan endorsements, her nomination comes amid a torrent of investigations into patronage within the judiciary and amid a flurry of late-term nominations to the bench.

On Thursday, the State Ethics Commission added its name to the list of authorities peering into the sideshow attraction that the Probation Department patronage scandal has become. The commission joins the attorney general, the U.S. Attorney, the Office of Bar Counsel, the inspector general and two government commissions devoting resources to problems within the agency.

And while the probation scandal has become a regular stimulus package for the legal community, Congress settled on a deal late Thursday to preserve tax breaks for Americans at all income levels and cut taxes more deeply for the middle class, scoring an overwhelming victory for a plan panned at both ends of the ideological spectrum. The deal also led to a moment of unity for the Bay State's senior and junior senators, who joined U.S. Reps. William Delahunt and Niki Tsongas as the only members of the Massachusetts delegation to support the package.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Approaching the cliff.

FAREWELLS AND DISCLOSURES FROM THE HOUSE FLOOR: Rep. Michael Rush learned from his time in the House that everything he learned in government civics class was wrong. Rep. Jeff Perry said rumors that he's taking a job with the border patrol are incorrect. Rep. James Fagan recalled that former House Speaker Charles Flaherty and former Gov. William Weld did business the "old-fashioned way" - over drinks every Friday afternoon. And Rep. Joseph Driscoll, in addition to confirming the importance of politicians being able to fake sincerity, laid out publicly something he'd discovered about Speaker Robert DeLeo. "I also learned very quickly from the speaker that he is a fair man and all that he wanted - all that he wanted - was complete compliance with his wishes after reasonable discussion," Driscoll said.

This program aired on December 17, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.


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