State House Roundup: Some Reform, Then Some Revenue
There is a time to talk about revenue and a time to talk about reform, and that time on Beacon Hill is apparently now, or always, sort of.
In a week when House Democrats banished a raft a proposed ethics rules changes sponsored by the GOP to what is often seen as the legislative wasteland of the Rules Committee, the debate over raising revenue to support the still-financially strapped Department of Transportation heated up like the thermometer.
Though Gov. Deval Patrick, the originator of the doomed-from-the-start 19 cent per gallon gas tax hike in 2009, waved off a question about his interest in reprising that initiative this week, his second in command was laying the groundwork for a revenue debate.
Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray stopped short of endorsing a gas tax hike and indicated that higher highway tolls or fare hikes on commuters would preferably be avoided. But the likely gubernatorial candidate in waiting had this to say about paying for the rails, roads and bridges: "There's still a few items left on the reform-before-revenue punch list but I do think we're getting close. I think we need to look at some type of revenue, dedicated in some shape, manner or form in the next year or two to be able to meet the needs of our transportation system."
The idea was not new, but had until then yet to be publicly articulated by someone as high up in the administration. And the comments came just days after Secretary Jeffrey Mullan, whose remaining days at MassDOT are assumed to be winding down, acknowledged the same.
"We can't continue to run structural deficits at MassDOT and the MBTA year after year," Mullan said at a Transportation Advisory Committee meeting where new revenue, and the task of selling it to the public, took center stage. "If that leads to a conversation about revenue, I guess that's inevitable. But that's not the conversation we've called for."
With the proverbial "reform-before-revenue" budget signed and on the books for fiscal 2012, Mullan suggested the mantra coined by Senate President Therese Murray had become a dated adage. Reform, after all, should always be the goal, he said.
Unless of course you're a House Republican and you want lobbyists to wear ID badges. The ethics rules package, authored by the Rep. Daniel Winslow and pushed by House Minority Leader Brad Jones met an uncertain fate on Wednesday when Democrats refused to allow a vote on the plan, or set a timeline for debate and consideration.
Instead, Democratic leadership sent the proposal to the House Committee on Rules from where Jones and other Republicans said they have little hope of seeing it emerge. Among the suggestions from the GOP to repair the damaged image of branch, lobbyists would have been required to wear name badges and members would have been required to snitch on their ethically challenged colleagues or face repercussions from the Ethics Committee.
Rather than debating the merits of the ethics reforms put on the table, Rules Chairman John Binienda pointed out how the House already implemented terms limits on the Speaker and mandated ethics training, while Rep. Ellen Story said too often the House acts reactively.
And so the beat marched on with legislative hearings on two perennial issues that inevitably draw scores of supporters, interest and platitudes, but little action.
First up was a hearing on expanding the bottle bill to include water, juice, sports drinks, etc. that drew familiar arguments in support of driving up recycling rates versus passing on added costs to consumers.
Then Patrick made a surprise visit to the Committee on Higher Education to testify in support of extending in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants who have attended high school in Massachusetts and are at least pursuing legal status.
The governor's brief testimony on the in-state tuition issue left observers wondering whether Patrick truly did just have a few spare minutes in his schedule, or whether his appearance marked the start a more concerted push by the Democrat with no reelection fight in sight for a reform dear to the immigrant community that he has long supported, but for which has never stuck his neck out very far.
Even with the governor's support, the prospect of Massachusetts joining 12 other states in offering illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates is murky at best given that the Senate just a year ago voted to legally prohibit it, and the House voted solidly to reject the measure five years ago even though then House Speaker Sal DiMasi spoke up in favor.
As the Legislature prepared for the looming August recess, an extension of simulcasting licenses for two remaining tracks and one de facto off-track betting parlor and approval of several of the governor's budget amendments, with a few tweaks, drew their attention, while the Senate passed a bill that would create 1,000 new units of "supportive housing" without any new resources and a committee teed up a sales tax holiday for Aug. 13-14.
Sensing that the prospects of passing a medical marijuana law this session could be trending toward the same result as the past 20 years, advocates indicated that they would take the first step toward putting the question on the ballot in 2012, one of the only confirmed ballot drive efforts with a little over a week until initial signatures are due.
And MassDevelopment, after holding off for days, finally acknowledged it was in talks with a developer to sell public land and bring a 600,000 square-foot film and television studio to Devens, with lots of jobs.
Away from Beacon Hill, the baited-breathe anticipation for consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren's decision on a 2012 Senate campaign ratcheted up a notch when President Obama decided not to fight Congressional Republicans over her nomination to head the new federal consumer protection agency.
While Warren fled Capitol Hill for Legoland for some time to reflect, Newton Mayor Setti Warren's campaign took a blow when it reported a first quarter fundraising haul in the red, with more owed to consultants than in the bank.
City Year Co-founder Alan Khazei leads all prospective Democratic challengers to U.S. Sen. Scott Brown with almost a $1 million raised, about a tenth of what the popular Republican has in the bank. And yet veterans of past political wars wondered privately whether Khazei had peaked by tapping the network he built in 2009, or if the FEC filing was a sign of good things to come for him.
While the focus stayed on the seven declared Democrats in the race, U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano and U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch reported $309,614 and $641,660 respectively in the bank, which would put them in second and third in the current Democratic money race should either decide to run.
You're move, Chairmen Moran and Rosenberg.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Revenue before reform before revenue.
This program aired on July 22, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.