State House Roundup: Lazy, Hazy, Crazy
With the nation’s freefall toward default halted, congressional leaders returned home with bellies full of partisan fire this week while questions at home about leadership of MassDOT were answered, at least partially.
House and Senate lawmakers were scarce around the capitol during the first week of the August recess, scattered across the state in their home districts. Some took the time for a trip west to take part in what was described as an apolitical summer barbecue at Gov. Deval Patrick’s Berkshire retreat. According to one attendee, about 100 lawmakers and spouses, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo, were lured to Sweet P. Farm courtesy of governor’s political donors for a bipartisan feast of burgers and hot dogs.
The summer socializing event — much like the Boehner-Obama golf outing — didn’t stop the two leaders from sparring a few days later over a court management reform bill signed by Patrick, but criticized by the state’s CEO for being too weak to address the serious management concerns at the Probation Department.
DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray returned fire, creating a worth-watching dynamic as Patrick headed for vacation in Bermuda and Maine. The Big Three appear unlikely to sit down together for several weeks with a gambling debate awaiting after Labor Day.
There was a fair bit of irony in the fact that the deadline to submit the first round of signatures for potential ballot drives in 2012 came while the Legislature took a break. The petitions offered a glimpse of what the people’s agenda might look like, and it didn’t look much like the ones set by Patrick, Murray and DeLeo.
It’s a lesson children learn early on in life: If one parent says no, ask the other.
And so advocates for 31 unique policy initiatives, some representing newer ideas and others long denied action through the legislative process, put down a placeholder should they decide that their chances are better with the 4.2 million registered voters of Massachusetts than with their 200 duly elected representatives.
Legalization of medical marijuana and assisted suicide, enforcement of teacher evaluations, an expansion of the bottle bill, and so-called Right to Repair legislation pitting some independent auto repairers against car manufacturers could all be put to a public vote. And the question of whether to allow wine and beer sales in more grocery stores and supermarkets could be making a comeback after a 2006 defeat.
Even casino gambling could be headed for a vote if the Legislature fails to act over the next several months.
Early indications from Murray and DeLeo are that the fall will be dominated by debate over expanded gaming, redistricting and pension and parole reforms.
If those issues can be dispensed with, the turning of the calendar will likely bring a renewed focus on health care cost containment legislation filed by Patrick, though none of the ideas on the table touch the petition proposed by Citizens for Life President Anne Fox to repeal the individual mandate for health coverage imposed under Gov. Mitt Romney and the 2006 reform law.
“I don’t think it puts pressure on the Legislature at all. If there are some things that don’t move and they feel strongly about them, that’s what the ballot process is for,” Murray told the Roundup this week.
While taking a respite from their own work, lawmakers started the week watching the dysfunction in Congress and wondering whether the federal government would ruin their vacations by forcing them to deal with the possibility that the state’s cash flow could dry up before Columbus Day.
A last-minute deal struck between Congress and the White House averted that threat of default, though seven of the Bay State’s 12 congressional members voted against the two-step compromise that will slash billions in spending over the next 10 years in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling.
U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, who voted no, warned of a slide back into recession, while U.S. Sen. John Kerry compared right-wing Republicans to hostage-takers willing to “shoot the hostage,” though both he and Sen. Scott Brown ultimately supported the deficit reduction plan.
With a deal in place, the Patrick administration still appeared to have little comprehension of where $917 billion in federal spending cuts over 10 years would hit in Massachusetts. Any reduction in defense contracts or scientific research dollars, however, could jam the cogs that help make the Bay State economy hum, they said.
Federal highway funding also appears in jeopardy, but that won’t be Jeff Mullan’s problem after Patrick’s third transportation secretary made good on his intentions to leave the administration before the end of the year, announcing he was headed back to Foley Hoag on Sept. 1 to practice law.
After a “brief and focused” search, Patrick unsurprisingly landed on 38-year-old MBTA General Manager Richard Davey who will bring his penchant for tweeting to MassDOT, no offense JM.
Before announcing his departure, however, Mullan had some unfinished business. First up was leading members of the Transportation Committee on a tour of the Big Dig tunnels in the wake of a light collapse that brought new, unflattering attention to the multibillion-dollar project.
When the bus pulled away from the State House carrying a few dozen aides and lawmakers, Mullan was on-board, but there was also a lingering suspicion that chief Big Dig engineer Helmut Ernst might be underneath.
Ernst, of course, was fired on the same day after an outside review sparked by comments Ernst made to the Boston Globe about a culture of secrecy at MassDOT and the unwillingness of employees to document safety concerns out of fear of litigation.
Ernst, like acting Highway Commissioner Frank Tramontozzi, could not survive the fallout from the light fixture collapse that exposed a lack of internal communication between top transportation officials. But what Ernst was fired for exactly remained a mystery.
Mullan insisted that the engineer’s privacy rights prevented him from saying anything more than that he had lost confidence in Ernst, and that his firing was not because he blew the whistle.
“Yes there’s been a tradition of secrecy there. I can’t really gauge how much that’s changed under Secretary Mullan’s tenure. I like to think based on what I’ve seen that he has tried to reverse that culture a little bit. I’ve found him to be rather candid, but I hope that’s not the reason for the dismissal of the two high ranking officials, Ernst and Tramontozzi, that their candor got them removed. I hope that’s not the case,” said Sen. Robert Hedlund, an 18-year Republican veteran of the Transportation Committee.
It was also an up-and-down week for Treasurer Steven Grossman who took pride in announcing that the state’s pension fund netted near historic returns after his first six months in office, but also had to take actions to restrict the volume of Cash WinFall tickets being sold by Lottery vendors after it was revealed that clever gambling interests had devised a method to scoop up winnings, depriving the casual player.
Grossman is also planning a beer summit of sorts next week to address concerns among small brewers that an advisory issued by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which he oversees, will restrict them from applying for less expensive farmer-brewer licenses unless they grow 50 percent of their grains and hops.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Democracy in inaction, then action.
This program aired on August 5, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.