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State House Roundup: New Year Interruptus

This article is more than 6 years old.

The new year got off to a chilly start as winter storm Hercules muscled his way into the Northeast, but it was still not cold enough to stop one long-time lawmaker from trading in her public servant card for a frosty mug.

Officially an election year now, Revere Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein rang in the New Year by announcing her plans to resign after 15 years in the House to handle government affairs for the Boston Beer Company.

The news shocked some of her colleagues – as much as any of them can be shocked these days when a colleague decides to jump to the higher-paying private sector – and left House Speaker Robert DeLeo contemplating the next seven months without a trusted deputy.

Gavel in hand, DeLeo received a group of senators in the chamber during the ceremonial start of the new session this week wondering what else 2014 has in store. Informed that the Senate was open for business, DeLeo quipped, “I'm not sure how many members I'm going to have to start, but please say thank you to the Senate President and the members of the Senate.”

Reinstein’s departure could put a fourth special election on the calendar for 2014, and makes her the tenth member of the House alone to decamp over the past year for either the Senate or other opportunities. As for Reinstein, she called the Sam Adams gig an “incredible opportunity” for her family, but one that will preclude her from being actively involved in next month’s Revere casino referendum, which she strongly supports.

Mother Nature seemed to understand intuitively the lingering holiday hangover and reluctance to return to the pace of a normal workweek. As one-to-two feet of fluffy white stuff was dumped across the region on Thursday and Friday, children and adults alike had a reason to postpone their return to reality.

The “Herculean” storm proved a worthy distraction from the normal course of New Year business.

Gov. Deval Patrick started the new year not by making grand pronouncements about how he would spend his final year in office, but instead by donning his MEMA vest at the Framingham emergency bunker and discussing snow totals, frigid wind chills and his decision to give state workers one more day off on Friday.

The Legislature also returned from its period of winter hibernation, if only ceremoniously, to reconvene for the second year of its two-year session. Dragged out over the course of two days, the pomp and circumstance of lawmakers’ return to work, for all practical purposes, amounted to very little work at all.

The session won’t start in earnest for at least another week. Unemployment insurance reform and minimum wage bills are emerging as early flashpoints, not to mention the welfare reform, veterans benefits, compounding pharmacy and mercury recycling bills still the subject of negotiation from last year.

The Senate has promised unemployment insurance reforms in January, while House Speaker Robert DeLeo is looking to package that issue with a Senate-backed minimum wage hike. Unions and worker advocacy groups are ramping up the fight against unemployment insurance reform, which has been interpreted to mean cuts in benefits, with business and conservative groups pushing for a benefits structure that’s more competitive with other states.

The idea of a minimum wage hike has proven popular among Democrats looking succeed Patrick a year from now, but Treasurer Steven Grossman went a step further this week saying he would not back a wage bill that included unemployment benefit cuts at a time when the federal UI benefit extension has been allowed to lapse by Congress.

It also bears watching how House Republicans receive a DeLeo employment bill. While Minority Leader Brad Jones last session suggested he’d be willing to talk about a modest minimum wage hike if business costs from unemployment insurance were also addressed, groups like the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance started beating drums against higher wages with an online petition.

With the New Year came deadlines, most notably for would-be casino developers and anyone without health insurance or with a plan that expired at the start of the year and needed to be renewed through the Massachusetts Health Connector.

By the Dec. 31 deadlines, the Connector reported nearly 50,000 applications received that were being painstakingly processed by staff due to the glitch-riddled exchange website that has been put on the back burner until the more pressing task of enrolling customers can be attended to.

With the Affordable Care Act and its protections for recent college grads and those with pre-existing condtions now in place, the Connector moved 130,000 people from state-subsidized coverage to the newly expanded Medicaid, or MassHealth, program. The Connector also said 24,256 “new people” accessed subsidized coverage through Health Connector and MassHealth programs, not just the resubcribers.

Casino developers met their deadlines as well, with all three remaining applicants for single casino licenses in western and eastern Massachusetts delivering their second phase applications to the Gaming Commission before the ball dropped.

While Mohegan Sun took pride in its 16,000-plus page application for a Revere casino on Suffolk Downs property, style points went to Steve Wynn whose competing bid in Everett came packed in brown binders with gold lettering and his own file cabinets to store the documents. Wynn also dismissed new allegations raised by Caesars in its lawsuit against Gaming Commissioner Stephen Crosby in which Caesars claims Crosby interfered in the process by personally encouraging Wynn to stay in the bidding when he considered dropping out over questions about his Macau business. A mischaracterization of the conversation, Wynn told the Globe.

Also on the gaming front, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe got a late Christmas gift – or non-gift – when the Bureau of Indian Affairs effectively approved its gaming compact with the state by taking no action at all by the Jan. 2 deadline. The approved compact is essentially the first legal casino gambling license in Massachusetts, its supporters said, though the tribe will still need land before it can build in Taunton and put its “license” to use.

The Department of Children of Families tried to start 2014 with a clean slate, wrapping up its investigation this week of its handling of the Jeremiah Oliver case. The five-year-old Fitchburg boy remains missing and presumed dead.

The internal DCF investigation detailed the failings of the social worker and her supervisors to provide proper oversight and service to the Oliver family as the fallout led to the termination of third person from the child protective services agency and the demotion and suspension of a fourth employee.

"It is my belief that the failure and misconduct of the staff involved in this case contributed to this tragedy,” DCF Commissioner Olga Roche said at a press conference. Roche described as inexcusable the failure of the social worker to conduct required home visits, despite warning signs and reports of abuse, and the complacence of her supervisors, who neglected to enforce department policy.

While the administration remains confident that the problems exposed in the Oliver case are not systemic throughout DCF, a Boston Globe report that the fired social worker had been promoted in late November and given a 5 percent raise only fueled calls in the Legislature for an inquiry.

While Senate President Therese Murray has expressed her own doubts about the efficacy of another oversight hearing into the oft-scrutinized agency, House and Post Audit and Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. David Linsky appears poised to push forward with the inquisition-style hearing this month.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Winter Storm Hercules leaves Beacon Hill buried in a snowdrift.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “You want to offer me a job for $120,000? I'll leave tomorrow.” – Rep. Paul Donato, on the pending resignation of Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein and decisions by other former colleagues to decamp from the august General Court for the private sector.

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