State House Roundup: Generation Next

It was with unsettling ease, and in fact, near total obfuscation, that the Beacon Hill brain trust stood side by side this week and announced a plan to loosen the pension albatross around taxpayers’ necks, in part by tying it to their children’s.

The governor and his budget chief, the speaker, the Senate president and the treasurer-elect again declared the time for action is now, recommitted themselves to “generational responsibility,” and in the same breath agreed to push billions of dollars of taxpayer pension costs another 15 years down the road.

Of course, the news that taxpayers’ obligations to shoring up unfunded public employee pensions would stretch to 2040, rather than 2025, was a barely mentioned aside at a press conference dedicated to Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to kick the retirement age up a notch and eliminate a few more longstanding abuses in the pension system, a plan Patrick said would save $5 billion over the next 30 years. That’s small potatoes next to the nearly $1 billion in immediate costs avoided by lengthening the payment plan.

The 2040 extension didn’t even merit a mention in the Tuesday press release announcing the governor’s “third phase” of pension reform. Rather, it was the ninth paragraph in a separate release that more prominently described “encouraging signs” of economic growth and announced a surge in tax collections. So bullish was the Patrick administration about fiscal affairs that Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez revealed plans to drop a cool $100 million into the state’s rainy day fund.

If anything, the pension announcement cemented a paradigm that is becoming increasingly clear: this governor’s tenure is likely to leave a decades-long imprint on Massachusetts that in many ways is only beginning to unfold.

Nowhere is it more apparent than in Patrick’s influence on the Supreme Judicial Court. After two consecutive governors – Jane Swift and Mitt Romney – served six years without a vacancy to fill on the state’s highest court, Patrick this week watched his third nominee to the seven-member bench inch toward confirmation. He also appointed the court’s chief, Justice Roderick Ireland, last month.

During her hearing Wednesday, Fernande Duffly, an 18-year jurist, beat back suggestions by some members of the Governor’s Council that she had glossed over facts in a few contentious rulings and sided too frequently with mothers moving children out of state and away from their fathers. Duffly, who could become the SJC’s first Asian-American justice, ultimately earned mixed reviews from councilors.

Should she win the Governor’s Council’s approval – no sure thing, given their clear skepticism – Patrick will have already had a hand in appointing a majority of the court’s members. When Ireland and Justice Judith Cowin turn 70 and are forced to retire, Patrick will get his fourth and fifth court appointees and his second chief, ensuring his grip on the court will last long after he leaves public office.

Lawmakers evidenced little reaction to the pension news this week, instead busying themselves by crafting an updated set of parliamentary rules – many of which will be suspended when they deem it necessary – to govern the Legislature over the next two years. Although the rules engendered several hours of debate in each chamber, few changes were adopted and a slew of Republican proposals, including a Senate plan establishing an independent redistricting commission, were beaten back on partisan lines. In the House, Democrats trounced Republican-sponsored reforms, declared their branch transparent, then launched into a debate on joint rules amendments unavailable to non-members.

Senate President Therese Murray, comfortably ribbing Republicans from her perch on the rostrum, announced her reformulated leadership team Thursday, including a reshuffled lineup of committee chairs.

Most prominently, Sen. Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat who voted against last year’s expanded gambling bill but says he’s open on the subject matter, will take control of the Senate’s budget committee, shifting the chamber’s balance of power westward. Brewer’s Ways and Means Committee deputies, Sens. Steven Baddour and Jennifer Flanagan – recent filer of a three-casino plan – pack a sassy punch that could liven up sometimes-staid budget debates. All three are new to those posts.

It’s become a biannual truism that naming committee members consumes the first month or more of a new legislative session. Democratic House leaders have yet to place their 129 members, despite the fact that Speaker DeLeo has known who the players are for nearly three months. The delay helps leaders squeeze fealty out of members crossing their fingers for plum assignments or office space. There was little in the way of aisle-crossing during the roll call votes Thursday on rules reforms.

While the Legislature and the governor talked pensions and rules, the other corners of Beacon Hill were abuzz, ceremoniously ushering in a new state auditor, Suzanne Bump, and state treasurer, Steve Grossman, as well as welcoming back Secretary of State William Galvin and Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The scattered celebrations on Wednesday bisected a week in state government shortened by holiday on one end and a storm on the other, punctuated by Patrick’s announcement Friday that he plans next year to boost some local aid accounts but cut non-school aid by $65 million.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov’s pension play lands on Beacon Hill still in ceremony-mode.

MUSICAL CHAIRS: The loss of a member of the Senate’s already miniature Republican caucus left Democratic leaders with an extra $15,000 to play with, money that would have paid the leadership stipend of an additional Republican senator. Instead, the funding will support new stipends for Democrats: a $7,500 supplement for the chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change and a $7,500 boost for the chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

IN HINDSIGHT: Also buried in the week’s news about increasing tax revenues was a decision by Beacon Hill policymakers to stop counting on a $160 million federal payment that Secretary Jay Gonzalez and legislative budget writers have long professed the Social Security Administration owes to Massachusetts. “We are less confident now that we will receive this amount from the federal government” during the current budget year, Gonzalez wrote in a letter to lawmakers. But for nearly a year, Gonzalez asserted confidence that the funds would arrive, and lawmakers were so convinced that they built the payment into the annual budget. Even when Gov. Deval Patrick axed $600 million in spending built on uncertain-to-arrive stimulus funds last year, the Social Security assumption stayed in the budget’s revenue column. “It's not going to get caught up in a political logjam,” said a Senate Ways and Means spokeswoman at the time, explaining why lawmakers were sure the funds would arrive.

This program aired on January 21, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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