Support the news

State House Roundup: Crash Landing?

This article is more than 6 years old.

As one lawmaker bid adieux for more than just a summer vacation this week, turbulence rocked a Democrat’s hope for a bright political future and the GOP’s stars continued blinking when it came to questions about 2014.

But the 2014 ballot card isn’t the only ticket that needs filling out, and as the Whitey Bulger jury continued to deliberate, interest groups and business leaders rendered their verdicts on laws passed and pending, and the Legislature enjoyed its first full week of summer recess.

On some topics, lawmakers feel they must holster their opinions for fear of alienating a public predisposed to distrusting their breed. Challenging the Ethics Commission, a somewhat secretive agency tasked with keeping politicians honest, would fall into that category.

Enter Sen. Daniel Wolf, whose suddenly public feud with the ethics law enforcers seemed to the open lid on dormant frustrations dating at least to February when lawmakers left a briefing with ethics officials more confused than ever over how to handle constituent job references.

The better-safe-than-sorry truism appeared to backfire this week on Wolf, a Cape Cod Democrat who said that “out of an abundance of caution” he checked in earlier this year with the State Ethics Commission to make sure he didn’t have any conflicts between his Cape Air business and running for governor.

The commission came back and told the Harwich Democrat that not only did he have a conflict, but that if he didn’t want to give up the business he started 25 years ago he would have to end his burgeoning gubernatorial campaign and resign from the Senate seat he has already held for three years.

His colleagues rushed to his defense. Senate President Therese Murray described the ruling as “harsh.” Sen. Kenneth Donnelly suggested the commission was “out to lunch.”

At issue, according to Ethics, are the agreements Cape Air has with the Massachusetts Port Authority to fly through Logan Airport – boilerplate contracts that predate Wolf’s foray into politics and self-renew every month and year, but still amount to an unlawful financial interest in a state contract.

The Ethics Commission took the rare step of issuing a public statement on a specific case, suggesting Wolf had fair warning as far back as 2010 that this could become an issue, but it didn’t surface until Wolf, himself, asked for an opinion and submitted the Massport contracts that could now prove to be a grounding force on his political career.

The gut-punch to Wolf’s future political ambitions left the airline owner considering his options to appeal or file suit in court to have the ruling overturned. In the meantime, he says he’s moving forward with his “Take Off with Dan Wolf” tour that starts in Billerica Tuesday.

Rep. Daniel Winslow, a Republican lawyer and former judge, noted that lawyer-lawmakers get to vote on judicial pay raises, but Wolf can’t even serve in the Senate? “We need Sen. Wolf and more Sen. Wolfs. I just wish they were Republican,” Winslow said.

But the law is the law, and Donnelly said he wants his Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight to take a closer look. “I think it was a horrible decision. Just terrible. The commission was out to lunch on this one," he said.

The post-budget lull at the State House proved to be the moment for longtime Republican Sen. Michael Knapik to bow out, resigning after nearly two decades in Senate to take a post at Westfield State University in his hometown.

With the Way Back Machine powering down, another Westfield Republican – Rep. Donald Humason – jumped with two feet into the race, while others GOPers considered the rare opportunity for non-fratricidal advancement knowing that keeping the seat Republican must be priority number one. Democrats were reportedly planning a weekend strategy summit, but Westfield Councilor Brian Sullivan, a former candidate for Governor’s Council and brother of Energy Secretary Richard Sullivan, is sitting this one out.

As electoral calculations were being made all over the state, the deadline came and went for citizen petitioners to put down a placeholder for possible 2014 ballot questions. The 18 submitted law changes and four constitutional amendments spanned the gamut of protecting whales and repealing taxes to raising the minimum wage and outlawing casinos. If past is prologue, most of the proposals won’t make it to the ballot.

Republicans and anti-tax advocates rallied behind a proposed measure that would leave the recent 3-cent gas tax increase in place, but decouple future increases from inflation to prevent what Rep. Shaunna O’Connell described as a “forever tax.”

Powerful business interests, including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Staples and BJ’s, also got behind a ballot effort to repeal the new software design and computer services sales tax, bringing the type of heft and clout that had House Speaker Robert DeLeo talking about “perfecting” the new law.

Both tax law changes proposed for the ballot would strike at the heart of the transportation financing legislation not yet a month old.

Potential GOP gubernatorial candidates Charlie Baker and Scott Brown continued to tease, despite GOP sources indicating Baker would get in before the calendar turned, and another Republican who already has a Corner Office had a bit of fun at Massachusetts’s expense.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott penned a letter to Massachusetts business owners urging them to book a one-way flight to the Orange peninsula, specifically citing the gas and computer service tax increases.

DeLeo, Murray and the Patrick administration all reacted defensively to Scott’s overture; sometimes it takes a little gamesmanship and competition to keep the instincts sharp.

It’s also worth asking whether Florida business owners like paying a 35.5 cent per gallon gas tax, still a full 9 cents higher than Massachusetts and also tied to inflation rates. Scott didn’t mention that.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Don’t like what’s happened on Beacon Hill the last seven months? Change it at the ballot. Unless, maybe, you’re Dan Wolf.

This program aired on August 9, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

+Join the discussion

Support the news