State House Roundup: Trying Time

Those heady days of reform before revenue, still ostensibly the unwritten law of the land, slowly started to recede this week as overtures for fairer, i.e. higher, taxes competed for oxygen with the official kick-start to the gaming debate.

With one eye always wandering toward Fan Pier where the corruption trial of former Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi got off to a rip-roaring start, lawmakers put on their waders to venture into some well-worn territory, and down other paths where Rep. James O'Day said only "adults" should tred.

Like the third act of a Shakespearean play whose ending has yet to be written, old friends and foes descended on the State House for what has become a biennial spectacle - the debate over expanded gambling.

And yet when the dust had settled on the nearly six-hour hearing, fears that gaming would "suck the oxygen out of the building" appeared premature, at least for now, with plenty of air left to go around.

Unlike hearings of past years where the anticipation for what might develop was palpable, familiar arguments for jobs and revenue countered by concerns of lives ruined by addiction were accompanied by a new sense of resignation. If it's true that the issue is riding upon a deal negotiated by state government's top leaders, as many in the building say, then what's the point of trying to persuade those waiting for orders from higher-ups? The three-minute limit on testimony was also a factor, seemingly placing the speed of finishing in one day above all else.

Before the first speaker even sat to testify, the two men whose disagreements over slot parlors derailed the legalization of expanded gambling less than a year ago, gave little indication that anything had changed.

Gov. Deval Patrick and House Speaker Robert DeLeo emerged together from their weekly meeting still talking about "preliminary discussions," and even Rep. Joseph Wagner, the newly deputized House point-man on gambling, indicated that his ability to have a bill ready by June would be contingent on Patrick, DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray reaching some type of common ground.

Though the hearing before the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technology unfolded rather predictably, perhaps most surprising was the short-shrift given to the altered gambling landscape.

Since Patrick and DiMasi - not DeLeo - went toe-to-toe on the issue, the economic recession has sopped up casino revenues around the country, online gambling has crept into the discussion in states and Congress, and Wonderland has closed while other Bay State tracks maneuver to survive.

Still, Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein perhaps best articulated the exasperation of gambling supporters, once breathless with anticipation and enthusiasm, now out of breath and a bit out of patience.

"Those people still calling for studies just want to postpone the lives of many of my constituents," the Revere representative told the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, noting that she represents two of the state's four racetracks. "We've studied enough; it is time to act."

While the gaming debate resumed on Beacon Hill, lawyers at the Moakley federal courthouse were beginning to lay out their opening arguments in the corruption case against former Speaker DiMasi and two co-defendants - a trial that promises weeks of political intrigue.


"We're all going to get an education on how the State House works," said Martin Weinberg, defense counsel to Richard Vitale, DiMasi's longtime friend and accountant.

What exactly will be revealed as the prosecution and defense make their cases remains to be seen, but the now near certainty that Gov. Patrick will be called to testify, along with DeLeo chief of staff Jim Eisenberg and Patrick's former budget chief Leslie Kirwan, could make life for some under the Dome uneasy for a few months.

Prosecutors teased that Patrick would provide "compelling" testimony, while it's the defense that intends to call Kirwan to the stand, an early sign that if DiMasi did lobby for a Cognos contract, he took his pleas to the top.

As the trial began, Patrick was off to the hills of the Berkshires for some clean-energy events and a Cabinet meeting in Pittsfield.

His absence also meant he could avoid being asked about raising taxes, an idea many of his supporters pushed on Thursday. Despite supporting the concept of a graduated income tax, a change that would require amending the Constitution, Patrick has said he has not appetite for that debate - now.

Undeterred, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. James O'Day brought their proposal to raise the income tax to 5.95 percent before the Revenue Committee, packing the Gardner Auditorium with supporters who testified that they'd be happy to pay more if the money got reinvested in services.

"It may be a fight, but in the end we will be victorious. We will get this bill passed," O'Day said, his bill amounting to a clever way - no constitutional amendment required - of shifting some of the tax burden off the lower and middle class to the more-wealthy while retaining a flat tax.

Proposing offsets for the middle class by increasing the personal tax exemption, O'Day said it was time for the Legislature to have "an adult conversation" about taxes, an implicit indictment of the way some talk about tax policy.

While Chang-Diaz and O'Day are the team co-captains, the rest of the "adult" line-up waiting to testify included Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Rep. Carl Sciortino, Rep. Peter Kocot, Rep. Denise Provost, Sen. Daniel Wolf, and Sen. Kenneth Donnelly.

One supporter paused in the aisle to take a picture, momentarily blocking traffic: "Excuse me," she apologized, "I just want to get a picture of murderer's row."

The call for a debate over tax changes with the potential net $1.37 billion in additional revenue coincided with a report from the Department of Revenue that showed that based on existing tax rates, April tax collections shattered benchmarks for the month by $587 million, and represented a 43 percent uptick from a year ago.

Embedded in those details, however, were mixed signs for the economy as sales taxes - an indicator of taxpayers' willingness to spend and pump money back into the economy - fell $6 million, or 1.6 percent from 2010.

Patrick's fourth nominee to the Supreme Judicial Court, Judge Barbara Lenk, won confirmation on a 5-3 vote as social conservatives raised concerns about her openly-gay status, and several councilors objected to her interpretation of some laws while on the Appeals Court.

The vote, however, was just one storyline enveloping the Governor's Council as heated personal disagreements between some members prompted Councilor Thomas Merrigan to admonish their behavior, and momentum built behind efforts to abolish the council and find some other way to confirm judges.

And if it was a bad week for the Governor's Council, it was equally rocky for U.S. Sen. Scott Brown who invited criticism after claiming to see a photo of Osama bin Laden's dead body during an intelligence briefing, only to later admit the photo had been a fake, and the briefing, well, maybe that never happened.

Eager, if not over-anxious to exploit any chink in the armor, Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh, Rep. Tom Conroy and others blasted away at Brown as speculation mounted that Newton Mayor Setti Warren may be inching closer to joining the field of 2012 challengers.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Revenue, and where to get it.

This program aired on May 6, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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