State House Roundup: Paging Sisyphus

The melancholy clatter of swivel chairs rolling through capitol corridors this week — property of those poor elected souls shunted to cobwebbed crawlspaces or sub-basement shoeboxes — failed to drown out a suddenly ear-piercing policy agenda on Beacon Hill.

Teetering on the edge of the steepest budget cliff since the economy collapsed, lawmakers on Friday doddered quietly into school vacation week, knowing they'll return in March to one of the most complex and weighty to-do lists in memory.

Staving off an explosion in pension costs to taxpayers; blowing up and rebuilding a criminal justice system under siege; reinventing the state's public defender program; curtailing union power to veto health care deals with cities and towns; and reversing decades of soaring health care costs without substantial reductions in benefits to the 98 percent of insured Massachusetts residents - it's a wish-list that makes last session's ethics-pension-transportation reform hydra look adorable.

Then, Thursday, Gov. Deval Patrick decided to pile on.

In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the governor unleashed the first salvo in what legislative leaders promised would be a painstakingly slow march toward a more affordable health care system in Massachusetts.

Patrick proposed grouping hospitals and doctors into integrated networks to better coordinate patient care. Those groups, known as "accountable care organizations," would receive financial incentives to keep patients healthy, moving away from the current model, which rewards medical professionals for each service performed.

It's a simple-sounding but tectonic shift of billions upon billions of dollars among hospitals, doctors, insurers, patients and government. And when that much money is involved, the Legislature — tugged violently in all directions by lobbyists — reliably slams on the brakes.

"Because I expect a long, involved debate process — with extensive fact-finding — it's good to have this proposal early on in the session," said a tarsally-impaired House Speaker Robert DeLeo in a statement otherwise noteworthy for saying nothing at all about the substance of the plan.

Long. Involved. Extensive. In other words, the time for action, or more likely cost shifting, is way, way later, perhaps after the first slot machines are installed at Suffolk Downs.

Patrick's latest proposal, combined with all the others — not to mention a promised casino/racino reprise — portends a furious, high-stakes mishmash of horse-trading, and jockeying on bills that will affect the lives and livelihoods of Bay Staters from Stockbridge to Provincetown.

With great policy drama, however, comes an even greater glossary. Government-speak like "unfunded liability," "mandatory post-release supervision," "fee-for-service," "reprocurement," "limited networks," and "global payments" are ratcheting up the required vocab for those who wish to participate in the discussions. It can make for painful writing, and even more painful reading, and that's assuming the issues get written about at all.


It was with few words at all, however, that lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously rallied behind a proposal to keep hundreds of millions of dollars in the hands of the private sector and out of the fund that pays unemployment benefits. Without a public hearing, lawmakers zipped a bill to a supportive Patrick to prevent Massachusetts businesses from being slapped with a $228-per-worker spike in their unemployment insurance assessment. Though the Legislature conveniently labeled it a "freeze," the assessment, signed into law by Patrick on Friday, will still increase by $61 per worker.

Although Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray didn't mind short-circuiting the hearing process to dole out some business-backed relief, DeLeo went back to his procedural roots when the governor made a sudden, unannounced move to protect transgender state workers from hiring and on-the-job discrimination. Patrick issued Executive Order 526 on Thursday, adding the words "gender identity or expression" to the categories state agencies are forbidden from considering in their workplace decisions.

Patrick, who spoke with eloquence and passion about the plight of the struggling during his reelection campaign and has fashioned himself a champion of civil rights, was uncharacteristically mute on the executive order. The signing didn't appear on his public schedule — though advocacy groups were invited — and he issued no statement or press release announcing the signing, allowing groups like the Massachusetts Transgender Political Caucus and MassEquality to speak for him.

The move was primarily aimed at fomenting support for a measure to include transgender residents in statewide nondiscrimination statutes, a proposal that garnered support from more than half of the Legislature last session — including DeLeo — but curiously never advanced from the Judiciary Committee.

A DeLeo spokesman said the speaker supports the governor's executive order but withheld comment on the statewide proposal, preferring instead to defer to the "public hearing process."

STORY OF THE WEEK: An agenda so ginormous Tom Kinton's pension would blush.

CAISSIE AT THE BAT: The eight elected members of the Governor's Council boast the awesome responsibility of serving as the last barrier between the governor's judicial nominees and lifetime appointments to the bench. For years they've been an afterthought, approving judge after judge, with the occasional spirited debate but little doubt about the outcome. But the departure of three reliable supporters of Gov. Patrick's judges has shifted the council onto more volatile ground, creating a new calculus for the administration at a time when an unprecedented string of high-profile vacancies have opened up, including one on the Supreme Judicial Court and four on the state Parole Board, also under the council's purview. Enter Jennie Caissie, a Republican councilor from Oxford, one of two GOP members of the council elected last fall. In her first action as a councilor, Caissie cast the decisive vote in support of Fernande Duffly, Gov. Deval Patrick's third appointee to the SJC, who won confirmation 4-3 last month. On Wednesday, Caissie again proved willing to back Patrick, voting in support of Joshua Wall as the next chair of the state Parole Board. Wall was confirmed 5-3. The tally cemented Caissie's swing-vote status on the council. She cast a pivotal vote against Heather Bradley, a Plymouth County prosecutor and the wife of state Rep. Garrett Bradley, in her question for a district court judgeship, knotting the council in a 4-4 tie and forcing Lt. Gov. Tim Murray to cast the tie-breaking vote for the first time in 50 months on Beacon Hill.

This program aired on February 18, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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