State House Roundup: Death With Benefits
The specter of deceased citizens collecting welfare benefits haunted the marbled halls of the State House this week as Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray tied up the loose ends dangling on his six-and-a-half years with the Patrick administration and Attorney General Martha Coakley sued the Obama administration for allegedly putting fishermen on death row.
Other than that, the arrival of steamy days in Boston ushered in a post-Memorial Day and budget week lull at the State House with the governor out of town, politicos watching two special elections and committees plodding forward with bill hearings while lawmakers wait for word from on high about their next big votes.
Congressman Ed Markey and Republican Gabriel Gomez also continued sniping from a distance in the lead-up to next week’s first debate, with First Lady Michelle Obama and song lady Carole King both in Massachusetts to campaign for Markey.
Auditor Suzanne Bump released a blockbuster audit of the Department of Transitional Assistance alleging $15 million in questionable spending on welfare benefits, including 1,164 cases totaling $2.4 million in benefits flowing to enrollees after they were reported deceased or to recipients using a dead person's Social Security number.
If Auditor Suzanne Bump was seeking to make a name for herself as a nonpartisan watchdog of the public purse, she hit the jackpot with this one. The report played perfectly into the hands of Republicans and conservative Democrats eager to jump on any morsel of evidence that welfare benefits are being abused.
What Bump might not have been expecting, however, was the tone of the pushback from Gov. Deval Patrick and his administration who had little positive to say about his former labor secretary’s work. And it’s not the first time the accuracy of Bump’s auditing has been questioned.
Patrick told the Herald he found it “infuriating” that Bump’s office had only released the details on 178 cases reviewed in the audit, of which his team found that only 17 were problematic. The spin required walking a fine line: Yes, one case of fraud is too many, but a 99.9 percent success rate ain’t bad either.
Asked whether the Democrat was doing a good job in her role as auditor, Patrick said, “I think it’s too soon to say.” Bump has been auditor for two and a half years.
Unlike other audits, this one isn’t likely to fade soon and will feed into the debate when Senate President Therese Murray files her comprehensive welfare reform legislation, expected soon.
Republicans and some House Democrats were frustrated by the Senate leadership’s decision to push off action on welfare system reforms to improve oversight during their budget debate last week.
But Sen. Murray dropped snippets throughout the week of what will likely be included in her looming welfare bill, including the addition of photo identification to EBT cards that was approved in the House budget.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo still wants welfare reform addressed in some way in the budget, which as of Thursday sits before a conference committee led by Sen. Stephen Brewer and Rep. Brian Dempsey.
Both those men also returned to the work of settling differences between the branches over tax increases, and until the transportation financing details are finalized Transportation Secretary Richard Davey indicated the administration would hold off on deciding whether to send half of the $300 million Chapter 90 funding approved for local road repairs. The first half of those funds is marked for distribution after a borrowing terms bill passes.
Patrick spent most of the week in western Massachusetts on the commencement and farm circuit, save for a brief appearance on Beacon Hill Wednesday just in case the Governor’s Council deadlocked on his latest nominee to the Worcester District Court bench and his presence was needed to break the tie.
Turns out, the trip was not needed. Councilor Michael Albano didn’t show up and the council voted 4-3 to reject attorney Stephen Anderson’s nomination based on his lack of criminal court experience and the suggestion that he lied on his application about the circumstances surrounding his professional break from his former law partners.
It was an apropos end to Lt. Gov. Murray’s tenure chairing the frequently tumultuous council. And as the duty of presiding over the body shifts to Patrick, the governor will have to be even more careful with his judicial nominations knowing tie votes can no longer be broken without a lieutenant to cast the ninth vote. That’s not a common occurrence, but Patrick faces a new dynamic in which four councilors voting together can reject any of his nominees to the bench over his final 18 months in office.
Murray filled his final week in state government with events handing over the responsibilities that have consumed his days since first elected in 2006 to other members of the administration and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, who takes over as chair of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Advisory Council.
Spending his last weekday in office in Westfield announcing new farm grants, Murray stood next to Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan, a former mayor of Westfield and now a stand-in for Murray as the most likely member of the administration to run for governor when Patrick’s term ends in 2014.
Sullivan was also on Fish Pier Thursday when Attorney General Martha Coakley announced she would be suing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in federal court to reverse new regulations that cut fishermen’s catch limits by up to 77 percent on some species. Coakley called the rules a “death penalty on the fishing industry in Massachusetts as we know it.”
Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry cruised past her Republican challenger to become the newest state senator representing South Boston, Dorchester and Mattapan, while attorney Jay Livingstone easily topped former Grossman political hand Josh Dawson in the special Democratic primary to fill former Rep. Marty Walz’s seat based in Beacon Hill and the Back Bay.
Forry’s victory closed the book on one special election, while creating the need for yet another to fill her seat in the House. The number of special legislative elections ongoing now stands at four, with three completed this year.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Tim Murray chapter on Beacon Hill ends; Auditor Suzanne Bump inserts herself into simmering debate on welfare reform.
This program aired on May 31, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.