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State House Roundup: Between The Lines

This article is more than 7 years old.

Lawmakers are a mystifying species, waxing eloquent about societal inequities and constituent demands with regularity during sessions of the House and Senate, but routinely skipping committee hearings that offer members of the public their one guaranteed chance to appeal for legislative solutions.

Taking a breather from a post-July agenda that has, thus far, included casinos and little else, members of the General Court kept up a sparse presence on Beacon Hill this week, maintaining a non-urgent pace and further delaying promised action on efforts to overhaul the state pension system and update parole laws.

So it became an unspoken, yet unmistakable statement of priorities when one issue – the redrawing of political boundaries for state legislators – stirred the interest of lawmakers so deeply that they flocked to the State House Tuesday, joining advocates and cramming the building’s largest venue, Gardner Auditorium.

Those on hand eagerly craned their necks to catch a glimpse of what political carnage, or not in most cases, had been wrought by their colleagues’ cartographic whims. Some relieved rank-and-filers thanked Redistricting Committee member for preserving voting base neighborhoods in their districts, for reuniting once-divided communities, or for making no changes at all. Others without skin in the game gawked and mulled political odds for legislators who saw important voting blocs lopped out of their territory.

In addition to about 25 committee members, another 20 lawmakers ringed the room and watched. Meanwhile, a hearing the same day about education funding that featured a reprise of finger-pointing between charter schools and traditional public schools drew fewer than half of the committee’s 17 members, partly a reflection of the fact that members rarely choose to engage on issues that don’t appear on the agenda of legislative leadership.

The release of the redistricting maps is a once-a-decade, constitutionally mandated job that lawmakers have kept to themselves rather than ceding it to an independent commission, as Republican demanded, even though the GOP has spoken favorably about the process. It was most notable for the nearly nonexistent backlash from advocacy groups and supporters of minority populations, who feared the panel wouldn’t give sufficient new political opportunities to the state’s rising minority population.

When the proposed maps were unfurled, most looked on in muted relief that the committee, chaired by Rep. Michael Moran and Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, had doubled to 20 the number of House districts whose populations are majority non-white, boosting the odds that minority representation on Beacon Hill will increase in 2013. Words like “ecstatic” and “positive” were bandied about by the observers on hand.

So placid was the rollout – it didn’t include Congressional redistricting - that even a pair of House freshmen who were drawn into proposed districts occupied by other incumbents simply shrugged and announced plans to relocate to suddenly unoccupied precincts down the road.

“I look forward to getting to know the people in North Lawrence better,” said Rep. Paul Adams.

“I'm going to move to the town of Peru over the next couple weeks,” Rep. Paul Mark told the News Service, apparently confident that the redistricting plan won’t be altered further when vetted by the full Legislature and governor.

Talk about bipartisan compromise.

The Executive Branch was no bustling hive of activity this week either. Gov. Deval Patrick spent the bulk of the week in Washington D.C., conducting private meetings with members of the Bay State Congressional delegation and the Obama administration, pausing for a Democratic Governors Association fundraiser and a political dinner with labor leaders.

A new jobs report that showed a shrinking unemployment rate, but a further erosion of jobs – the often-confusing product of two separate surveys – elicited little response from administration officials, who have previously lit up the press corps’s phone lines, praising the governor’s job-creation strategy, in months that featured robust gains.

Overall, there were 2,300 jobs lost in September, but there were also a revised 10,500 jobs lost in August, nearly 2,600 more than initially reported a month ago, blowing up the governor’s claim that the those losses were nearly entirely attributable to a work stoppage at Verizon that affected 6,100 employees.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray stuck a hot poker in the eye of the GOP on Wednesday when he invoked Ronald Reagan to amplify his pitch for an “adult conversation” about transportation revenue. You see, he posited, Reagan supported a gasoline “fee,” implying that the anti-tax devotees who regularly lionize him should take a lesson in compromise.

Republicans bit: “I am not surprised that Tim Murray throws around the possibility of a gas tax so easily,” said state Republican Party Executive Director Nate Little, in a statement following Murray’s remarks. “He has been riding on easy street for years, driven about in his taxpayer funded SUV. If I didn't have to fill my own tank I might be in favor of a gas tax too.”

Murray, of course, says he has no such plan to support a gas tax hike, noting only that it is “on the table” as part of an overarching discussion of transportation finance. However, administration officials have yet to offer a credible revenue alternative to the gas tax, which remains the only transportation financing plan issued by the Patrick administration to date. Patrick still claims to support the proposal – describing it as a dedicated source of revenue that can be put toward rebuilding infrastructure – but says he has no plans to offer it, given its political unpopularity and dead-on-arrival review from lawmakers two years ago.

Murray delivered his commentary on the subject at a breakfast hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. And in response, he received a subtle, but potentially significant vote of support from chamber president Paul Guzzi.

“I totally agree that all options, including the gas tax, should be on the table,” said Guzzi, who represents the interest of Boston’s business community. Praising the administration for being willing to “take risks,” he added later, “We will join you at that table.”

At the same meeting, Murray announced a plan to send $50 million in bond capital to support development at Boston’s Fan Pier, part of a massive effort to build new office towers, including the new global headquarters of Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

PUBLIC EMPLOYEE OF THE WEEK: Beacon Hill policymakers often measure legislation in terms of lives saved and lost, dropping stats ad nauseum to eye-rolling, yawn-inducing effect. So when a public employee demonstrably saves a life – as Boston firefighter Glenn McGillivray did Monday – it’s worth a moment’s pause. McGillivray, according to published accounts, caught 6-year-old Xavier Lara, who was tossed from a third-story window in Roxbury by his grandmother, as their apartment succumbed to a raging fire.

THIS WEEK IN CORRUPTION: Former Cognos salesman Joseph Lally proved that cooperation with the feds pays off: Judge Mark Wolf slapped him with an 18-month jail term for his role in a kickback scheme that landed former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi an eight-year jail term and lobbyist Richard McDonough a seven-year jail term last month. By most accounts, Lally was the grease that made the conspiracy go, serving as the corrupted conduit between DiMasi and Cognos to secure bribe payments. But Lally pled guilty to the scheme in March and took a deal he expected to net him two to three years in prison. Instead, he got a lighter sentence than even he predicted, and was permitted by prosecutors to sell his home, which helped untangle his massive debt load. Defense lawyers contended that this financial arrangement gave Lally an incentive to lie and sharpen his testimony against DiMasi and McDonough.

IS EIGHT ENOUGH? That’s the question on the minds of politicos eyeing the Second Suffolk and Middlesex district occupied until last week by Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. It’s also the combined number of declared candidates and those interested in launching bids for the seat, which has been a Tolman family heirloom since elder brother Warren Tolman won it in 1990. The all-Democratic field (declared and undeclared) is a Watertown-heavy bunch, which could dim the prospect of picking a nominee from that community, considering those candidates may carve up the hometown base in a close election. Just from Watertown, the field of declared and potential candidates includes Rep. Jonathan Hecht, former town council president Clyde Younger, former head of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts Robert McCarthy, and Governor’s Councilor Marilyn Devaney. To make matters more complex, another potential candidate, assistant district attorney Sheila Lawn – a Brighton resident – is the sister of Rep. John Lawn, who commands two Watertown precincts and could help deliver the vote for her. The Boston-based field also includes attorney Tim Schofield, who has run a pair of campaigns and has institutional backing from neighborhood electeds. Rep. Martha Walz is eyeing a bid as well. Only one candidate hails from the Belmont side of the district: Rep. William Brownsberger, who could benefit from a split vote in Watertown and Boston, if multiple candidates from each community run. The district – which includes Allston, Brighton, part of the Back Bay, Belmont and Watertown – also includes a segment of Cambridge.

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

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