State House Roundup: Rolling With The Punches
It was the week that wasn’t for Gov. Deval Patrick, as his embattled child protection agency and a state representative who now wears cuffs instead of cufflinks overshadowed what was supposed to be a turning point of the Patrick era.
On Tuesday, Patrick was due to give his final, evening televised State of the Commonwealth address. It was going to be his chance to highlight what he views as the accomplishments of his administration over the past seven years and outline how he plans to “run through the tape” over his final 11 months in office.
That chance will come. But not until next Tuesday after a snow storm forced the governor to reschedule. The storm that hit the South Shore harder than anywhere else really threw off the Patrick’s orchestrated plan, which typically allows for the governor to give the speech before he lays out his annual budget pitch.
There was no speech, but the budget arrived on time. Patrick laid out his $36.4 billion annual spending plan for fiscal 2015 on Wednesday, another last for this governor who would later deny any regrets about his decision not to seek a third term. "No I love my wife Diane and one more term she’d probably put me out of the house,” he said during a radio appearance.
On the surface, most agreed the budget was nothing out of the ordinary. No grandiose tax reform plans or legacy-altering shifts in priorities. As Patrick put it, the budget would invest in education, innovation and infrastructure. It also proposed taxing candy and soda and expanding the bottle bill. Sound familiar?
The early and higher education investments to keep public college tuitions and fees frozen and reduce the waitlist for pre-kindergarten programs were singled out by members of the administration as takeaways.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, took something else away from the budget, namely the governor’s decision to level fund unrestricted local aid for cities and towns. The result, Beckwith said, would be diminished local services and increased reliance on property taxes.
By week’s end, House Speaker Robert DeLeo was promising to do better, but wasn’t saying how much.
“This is largely a steady as you go, straight-forward, no-frills budget,” said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer. And one likely to get a rewrite now that it’s in the hands of the Legislature.
The budget also included increased funding for the troubled Department of Children and Families, which once again commanded a great deal of attention, and with good reason. Five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver is still missing, and despite early suggestions from the administration that the Oliver case was an isolated lapse, evidence appears to be mounting that problems are more pervasive at the agency.
The Office of the Child Advocate, asked by Patrick to conduct its own review of DCF’s handling of the Oliver family, shed little new light on that case itself, but offered a peek inside the agency that seemed to justify the outrage of lawmakers.
“I am struck by the fact that somehow this little boy didn't slip through the cracks at one level. [He] slipped through the cracks on three separate levels,” House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight Chairman David Linsky said at an oversight hearing held by his committee.
DCF Commissioner Olga Roche tried to say the right things when she appeared before House lawmakers, using buzz phrases like “zero-tolerance” and “no excuse.” And the Child Advocate’s report about high caseloads exceeding contractual limits at the North Central Area Office in Leominster offered at least rationale for how depleted budgets could have led to Oliver slipping through the cracks, even if the report went out of its way to say the caseload data “provided a context rather than an excuse” for missing the warning signs.
The social worker assigned to the Oliver family, and two of her supervisors, have been fired for, among other things, failing to conduct required monthly home visits. And yet, missing home visits seems to be a common occurrence.
The Office of the Child Advocate reported that DCF makes an average of 82.5 percent of the home visits it is supposed to make statewide, while the Leominster office has only a slightly worse track record of 81.4 percent.
Officials know that funding is part of the problem, and it’s likely why Patrick made a point of allocating $9.2 million in his fiscal 2015 budget proposal to hire additional social workers and reduce caseloads to the agreed upon number of 15, or 28 children, whichever comes first.
"As concerning as the staffing levels are, they don't explain what happened in the Oliver case because the social worker and or the supervisor mislead their superior about those home visits and check-ins," Patrick said Wednesday during an appearance on WGBH's "Ask the Governor."
The administration got decent news in the form of the December jobs report. The unemployment rate may still be higher than national average at 7 percent, but the economy had added 55,500 jobs since last year, representing the largest number of jobs added during this timeframe since 1999.
Rep. Carlos Henriquez, a Dorchester Democrat, was certainly not going to spoil that good news by adding himself to the ranks of the unemployed. Henriquez continued to resist calls for his resignation after being convicted of two counts of assault and battery last week, and not even the spectacle of being dragged back to Beacon Hill in handcuffs could make up his mind.
The House Ethics Committee, now led by its vice-chairman Rep. David Nangle, summoned Henriquez from his jail cell to appear before the committee for private deliberations on Friday as the panel weighs whether to recommend expulsion for the House, or another course of discipline.
Henriquez said no words in public during his hour back at the State House, but his lawyer had plenty to say, including that her client maintains his innocence and has not yet decided on his political future.
In addition to questioning the veracity of the victim’s claims of assault by Henriquez, attorney Stephanie Soriano-Mills went so far as to lament that the Dorchester lawmaker, with no prior record, was made an example of because of his position and did not receive a trial before a “jury of his peers,” which happened to be all-white.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Patrick puts markers down for next year’s budget while the House focus remains affixed on jailed Rep. Carlos Henriquez.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I’m not at the maudlin sentimentality stage…yet,” said Gov. Deval Patrick, who has been prodded increasingly to reflect on his time his office, despite 11 more months in office.