State House Roundup: I Wanna Be The Minority
If you blinked, you missed it – that concupiscent sparkle in the eye of House Republican Leader Brad Jones, an almost flirtatious glimpse that cooed silently: “Sal DiMasi, will you be my Valentine?”
For Jones, the news that DiMasi, the former speaker of the House and current federal inmate, has been bopping around New England – in all likelihood to testify in a white-hot patronage investigation that could net his old Democratic friends and allies in the Legislature - was the icing on a red velvet cake served by a GOP that appeared to hit its election year stride midweek.
It wasn’t just the cacophonous rumble of potentially impending indictments – now the stuff of daily capitol rumor-mongering – beating like a telltale heart beneath the dome. It wasn’t only the way Republicans seized on a seemingly disjointed legislative agenda to deliver a resounding pro-jobs message, and it wasn’t only the way they lacerated Democrats for scoffing at annual spending caps – transforming an all-too-often placid House chamber into an old-school debating hall.
It was also the way Democrats handed them fodder that could make its way into mailers and YouTube videos for the next 263 days. Lt. Gov. Tim Murray’s nonexistent cell phone records come to mind, as well as Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby’s reception that happened to be held at a firm just hired by the Patrick administration to vet tribal gambling compacts come to mind.
In short, for the first time in a long time in deep-blue Massachusetts – in an election year that many feel will diminish a Republican legislative delegation at the height of its still-miniscule influence – it seemed like a decent week to be a Republican.
First, the often-fractious party, 37 members in all, corralled its most recalcitrant faction for a marathon press conference to promote 25 proposals aimed at creating jobs, delivering a scalding broadside to Democrats, who they accused of lacking focus on the issue of the moment – never mind Democratic protestations to the contrary.
"If I, in this still-bad economy, am running for reelection … I don't want to run on just what we've done so far because we really haven't done that much," Jones told reporters Wednesday as Democrats continued to mull their own job creation strategies, a health care bill and the MBTA’s fiscal problems.
After Wednesday’s press conference, Jones led a withering assault on the Patrick administration for blessing a merger between NSTAR and Northeast Utilities on the condition that the company buy into Cape Wind, the 130-turbine offshore wind project that always seems one regulatory, legal or financial hurdle away from, well, the next one. Although environmentalists hailed the move as a breakthrough for a project that could generate enough energy to power Cape Cod, GOP acolytes sought to draw blood.
“This seems like extortion to me. I don’t appreciate the Governor playing Chicago-style politics with the future of Cape Cod and the Islands,” said Rep. David Vieira (R-East Falmouth). “The fact the Governor held the NStar merger hostage to the Cape Wind power purchase just doesn’t pass the smell test. These types of backroom deals are exactly what enrage taxpayers and should no longer be accepted.”
House Republicans also capitalized on a debate over a good-government bill that Democrats said would streamline the state’s bureaucracy, institute performance metrics to ensure that agencies are meeting their goals and base fiscal decisions on sound projections and analysis. The bill, a deep dive into eye-glazing and arcane financial laws – embraced first by Senate President Therese Murray last year – appeared destined for an unheralded rubberstamping, unnoticed by the public at-large.
But members clashed fiercely over a GOP plan to cap state spending, limiting growth to inflation and changes in population. Democrats insisted the move was a political ploy that could dangerously impede the ability of state budget writers to help those who need it most.
“It's our job to make judgments from year to year about what we spend and how we tax. And to put into statute any requirements [that] in any way limit our successors is to make a serious political mistake,” said Rep. Jay Kaufman (D-Lexington). “If this is a meaningless political gesture we are being asked to subscribe to, I would ask that we reject it.”
The swipe drew a parry from several Republican freshmen.
“If fighting for the taxpayers of Massachusetts is gamesmanship, count me in as political,” said Rep. James Lyons (R-Andover).
The GOP wasn’t alone in discussing job creation though, with a Democrat-led committee fielding testimony from the state’s top economic development officials and business leaders about a broad new growth strategy embraced by the Patrick administration.
“Businesses are looking at what the long-term business climate is for Massachusetts," said economic development Secretary Gregory Bialecki. “They're looking for predictability.”
Republican momentum, however forceful, scarcely suppressed Democratic glee over the potential advent of a new Kennedy era in Congress. Joseph Kennedy III, heir to the clan besmirched by the rise of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown to a seat long held by liberal icon Edward Kennedy, made the announcement you’d expect him to make after he quit his job and won two major union endorsements: he’s in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Barney Frank.
Kennedy’s announcement had been preceded by weeks of tantalizing and teasing by his supporters that he was likely to get in the race he said he as exploring, and the AFL-CIO, like several elected officials, endorsed the not-quite-a-candidate before he made his bid official Thursday.
Senators laid low this week, emerging Thursday to embrace a bill that would put the onus of paying for utility storm response investigations on the utilities themselves. The legislation also calls for all penalties on utilities for storm response violations to be credited to customers based on electricity usage, requires utilities to set up an in-state call center and have sufficient staff to field calls during major storms, and mandates that utilities designate a community liaison in each community when implementing an emergency response plan. The bill won bipartisan support, but Republicans drove a wedge into the proceedings with an ultimately unsuccessful amendment aimed at slowing the Northeast-NStar merger.
Meanwhile, less than two weeks after the Senate endorsed a plan aimed at curbing the illegal trafficking of prescription drugs, a legislative panel was treated to a three-hour admonition about an imminent – if not already ongoing – crisis of prescription drug shortages for patients who actually need them.
David Twitchell, the director of pharmacy at Boston Medical Center, told the Committee on Public Health that existing shortages had forced doctors to rely on rare or obsolete medicines for patients.
"No one seems to have an answer and patients are at risk of being harmed and there is no doubt someone has died as a result," Twitchell said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Jonesing for jobs.
This program aired on February 17, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.