State House Roundup: Street Theater

Smile, Massachusetts. You're on national TV.

The presidential circus came to town this week when the Obama campaign dispatched the president's senior campaign advisor David Axelrod to Boston to round up an assorted cast of Beacon Hill denizens for an aptly staged assault on Mitt Romney's gubernatorial record from the steps of the State House.

The refrain, broadcast live on CNN, went something like this: Romney was a government-expanding, credit card-wielding, fee-raising "conservative" Republican picking the pockets of the middle class. But please don't look behind the curtain lest you find the wizards of the Democrat-controlled Legislature pulling the strings for him.

Despite producing six serious White House contenders since 1960, it's a relatively rare occurrence for the Bay State to take center stage in a presidential contest. Massachusetts is reliably Democratic, features few electoral college votes and is more valued for its political contributors and talent than its votes.

But this is not an ordinary year. With Romney poised to become the state's first modern-era Republican to accept a presidential nomination in Tampa in August, his home state's expected repudiation of his candidacy is an enticing selling point for an incumbent president pressed against the ropes by an economy that simply refuses to recover - 69,000 net new jobs in May, a rising 8.2 percent unemployment rate.

And so there they were, more than two dozen House and Senate Democrats, under the hot sun Thursday, relishing the break from the activity under the Golden Dome - a $212 million spending bill was about to sail through the House - to confront the pro-Romney hecklers who did a masterful job at disrupting the event and becoming more than just a sidebar to the story.

Incidentally, Gov. Deval Patrick was not at the rally, but he did his part with appearances on MSNBC and CNN and a planned trip to D.C. on Sunday for "Meet the Press."

"Those are your jobs," Rep. Cory Atkins mouthed to the protesters, giving them the thumbs down sign as Rep. Patricia Haddad talked about Romney outsourcing a call center to India. Atkins was also among a small group of representatives, including Rep. David Linsky and Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, tapped to hit the road this weekend for Obama, traveling to places like Ohio, New Hampshire and Iowa to talk about life under Gov. Romney.

With facts, figures and talking points hand delivered by the president's closest advisor prior to the press conference at their fingertips, lawmakers were well prepped for the moment in the spotlight. Too bad the same could not be said for the legislation they would be voting on later that day.

The House Ways and Means Committee had a big week, releasing a redrafted version of Rep. Steven Walsh's health care cost containment bill, and a surprise $212 million supplemental budget announced publicly by Minority Leader Brad Jones, of all people, on the floor of the House during a debate on election law reforms.

"No idea. I was told it's to pay the bills," said one House member Wednesday afternoon when asked what the spending document contained. Another simply shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine," he said.


Forwarded to Ways and Means Committee members Wednesday afternoon and filed with the clerk after 5 p.m. for consideration the next day, the bill overflowed with money for sheriffs, collective bargaining agreements, human services and hospitals and with policy changes related to health care and the Green Line extension project. By way of justification, Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey called the bill "time sensitive" and critical to accessing federal matching funds.

Notwithstanding a failed attempt to delay consideration of the bill and a snarky Tweet from Republican Rep. Steven Levy critiquing the rushed process, the bill flew through the House. The most vocal debate came over something only marginally related to state spending: a twice defeated amendment this week requiring voters to show identification at the polls. The proposals not debated, or even read out loud, were among those that passed.

With debate on health care payment reform - generating its own national buzz - on tap for next Tuesday and Wednesday, House members had a little more time to consider that bill, which emerged Tuesday morning from Dempsey's committee with a Friday amendment deadline.

Animosity between health plans and providers in the debate over who will bear the brunt of cost containment has never been much of a secret, but with the finality of Legislature's process drawing nearer, the cooperative, common cause messaging started to show cracks.

Complaints over changes made by Ways and Means were whispered by the plans, and the hospitals raised "major concerns" over bureaucracy, cost goals and complex regulations potentially detrimental to the economy.

Then Michael Widmer had this to say: "While the House Ways and Means Committee has made a sincere effort to address some of the most egregious elements of the bill introduced by the House Committee on Health Care Financing, the revised proposal is still seriously flawed and deals a blow to the future of the health care sector in the state."

Mark this week down on the calendar as the week the ground began to shift under health care cost control efforts on Beacon Hill and the opponents began to marshal energy against changing the status quo. The rhetoric took on a decidedly more combative tone, and it could be worth remembering on July 31.

The House put check marks next to bills that would allow home-based child care providers to unionize, and 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote. Opponents of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision to relicense the Pilgrim Power Plant in Plymouth vowed to continue the fight, taking solace in Gov. Deval Patrick calling the decision "extremely troubling" and Attorney General Martha Coakley vowing to continue to raise objections in court and through "other appropriate channels."

The week came to a quiet end with Democrats heading en-masse for the Turnpike to the Democratic Party Convention in Springfield, and likely U.S. Senate nominee Elizabeth Warren boarding an Amtrak train west with Cherokee nation nipping at her heels.

This program aired on June 1, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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