State House Roundup: Lights Out

Rambunctious throngs pounded at the gates of the capitol this week, warning with finger-waving fury of an under-the-radar "war" on minority communities being waged in the marble halls. Separately, a senior Patrick administration aide called for a green energy "revolution" to propel Massachusetts' economy deeper into the black.

But the proletarian passions belied reality beneath the dome this week. Largely inactive lawmakers glided past the Ides of March and into St. Patrick's Day weekend, getting an early start on their Evacuation Day celebration. Gov. Deval Patrick pounced on the inertia to jet to the Virgin Islands. The branches coasted without debate past March 15, a key date by which cities and towns hope to learn the level of state aid they'll receive.

As if Beacon Hill needed a metaphor, a midweek, 30-hour blackout that immobilized a large swath of Boston provided an unwelcome reminder that nothing stirs up constituent resentment like a prolonged power outage. The result of an explosive Back Bay blaze Tuesday at an electricity substation, the fire and its aftermath thrust NStar - a villain in two lengthy blackouts last year - back into the headlines.

For two days, the outage crippled Boston's busiest retail zones: Newbury and Boylston streets, hampering a health care conference at the Hynes Convention Center and, for a time, sending confused residents and motorists into the eerily silent, unlit streets.

Six weeks from the deadline for political challengers to step forward, legislative leaders seem content to advance a nearly unanimously supported agenda - no tough votes in the House or Senate, no rock-the-boat election-year-altering moments - while empowering handpicked point-men and point-women to make consequential decisions without the risk of a recorded vote.

The story is in the numbers: Of the 50 recorded votes taken by the House and Senate so far in 2012, 38 have been unanimous, symbolic statements of support, three have featured fewer than four dissenters, and the other nine were primarily party line. Democrats, essentially, haven't broken ranks from their leaders once this year.

Meanwhile, Democrats from the rank-and-file to the upper echelons of leadership and beyond have begun priming the campaign-season pump with a noticeable uptick in fundraising activity in the favored watering holes adjacent to the capitol. From Congressman William Keating at No. 9 Park Monday morning to Rep. Tom Sannicandro's planned funder next week at Emmet's and Sen. Barry Finegold and Sen. Eileen Donoghue's times at Scollay Square, out-of-district Boston cash-raising activities have turned the streets outside the capitol into fundraiser alley. It's a side of Beacon Hill most voters rarely see.

Those voting in lockstep with leadership took a broadside this week from one of the House's youngest members, who accused his colleagues of having little understanding of a crime bill that passed overwhelmingly last year. Rep. Carlos Henriquez, a Democratic freshman from Dorchester, was one of 12 opponents of a proposal he argues would ram scarce taxpayer dollars into an overstuffed prison system rather than more useful government services, like education.

"We're going to war in here. We're going to battle about this bill," Henriquez told a hundreds-strong crowd of supporters. "We have found out that most of our colleagues who voted for this bill originally did not do so with the full knowledge of what this bill will do to our communities."

The bill passed by the House would in fact require maximum sentences and eliminate the possibility of parole for criminals who commit their third felony, a plan supporters say would only target the most dangerous offenders and protect public safety. Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat, is leading negotiations on the bill with the Senate, which passed a far more sweeping version that included reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, mandatory supervision for convicts when they get out of prison and expanded wiretapping power for state police.


The Senate's version of the bill also shrinks to 500 feet the size of a zone around schools in which drug offenders are subject to automatic two-year minimum sentences. Although the House has yet to vote on any of those proposals, O'Flaherty used his authority to double down on the school zone provision, proposing to shrink it to 100 feet and shut it off between midnight and 5 a.m.

Also this week, the Patrick administration pressed to regain control the state's economic narrative, under a withering assault by Republicans over revised data suggesting that the state's job creation in 2011 was far weaker than initially reported.

Patrick's cabinet secretaries, pinch-hitting for the vacationing governor, continued to blame the referee - the Bureau of Labor Statistics - for allegedly undercounting the state's strong autumn job growth.

"It just reaffirms for us that this data point is not consistent with the other information that we're getting about how we're doing in terms of our GDP growth, in terms of our growth in our payroll tax receipts. There's a lot of indicators - export growth, and so forth," said Patrick's economic development chief Greg Bialecki in a phone interview. In the same call, Patrick's labor chief, Joanne Goldstein noted that the state saw job growth in "innovation" sectors that she said represent "Massachusetts's global calling card."

Still, both secretaries painted a more subdued picture of the state - and the nation's economic health - devoid of the more bullish pronouncements of nation-leading recovery that had dotted Patrick and his team's remarks before. Bialecki noted that although he still believes Massachusetts is ahead, it's hard to significantly outpace - or lag - the national economy.

"Unless it's an exceptional thing, like you have oil and gas, you're part of a national economy and you can't do that much better than the country as a whole is doing," he said.

A closer inspection of the BLS numbers shows that Massachusetts created jobs at the same speed as Nebraska, Arkansas and South Dakota last year - tied for 40th in the country. Georgia, tied with Tennessee for 6th, found no issue with the Bureau of Labor Statistics's data.

"From our perspective, Georgia was one of the national leaders in job growth prior to the recession, and we expect to be among the leaders, as we emerge from it," Sam Hall, communications director for Georgia's Department of Labor, wrote in an emailed response to the News Service. "BLS is recognized as the national clearing house for labor market data, and we are certainly pleased by the results of the new report."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Quiet capitol, darkened capital.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "It is now time to turn from reform to energy revolution." - Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan ginning up a small army of clean tech executives to beat down lawmakers' office doors and demand support. Sullivan was speaking at Clean Energy Day at the State House, a chance for entrepreneurs to showcase their wares.

This program aired on March 16, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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