Monday, March 2, 2009

Sate House Roundup ..worth the read

By Jim O'Sullivan

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 27, 2009…..."I got backed into the corner of my grocery store Saturday," Senate President Therese Murray said Wednesday, "and couldn't move, by people yelling at me."

The mob, who spotted Murray despite her weekend attire of sweats and a baseball cap, had sensed that the climate on the Hill has begun to emanate the strong odor of pending taxation. On a lot of things.

In the queue, per Gov. Deval Patrick's fiscal proposals: Hummers, Tootsie Rolls, Dr. Pepper, Motel 6 stays, Budweiser, telecommunications services, and lunch.

There's an estimated $20 billion less than needed to maintain existing transportation infrastructure over the next two decades, a $900 million or so hole in this year's state budget, and that whopper of a $3.5 billion deficit due to kick in July 1. Not to mention the seemingly doomed Big Dig debt deal that has the state on the hook for a $363 million payment, a situation "out of our control", turnpike executive director Alan LeBovidge said Thursday.

Republicans on Thursday tried to make the claim that new revenues were not needed, a suggestion preposterously D.O.A., given current trends. Many of those consumer products, though probably not all, will cost more sooner rather than later due to the state increasing its take.

"There's no question that we're going to need more revenue," Murray said outside her office, at a safe remove from the belligerent horde. "How we get that revenue, the devil's in the details, and we're working on it."

And, of course, gasoline. They want to tax gasoline, do the kings and queens of the Hill. The frame for this debate this week became, finally, the signed, sealed and delivered $100 million toll hike, assigned in two stages beginning next month, and set to double tunnel tolls by July. The choice foisted upon the House and Senate: Patrick's 19-cent gas tax, or a variation thereof, or significant toll hikes. Or a better idea, if you've got it.

Patrick's 141-page bill went bafflingly unfiled until 5:15 on Tuesday afternoon, three hours or so after the Pike vote. No one seemed to be able to explain this final delay in any detail, but it's accurate to report that the few extra hours - after a vote conditional to the success of legislation that had not yet been fully authored - cost the administration something dear in the court of mild dementia that is the Legislature's collective consciousness.

Lawmakers, some of whom must now explain to constituents (i.e., voters) why they failed to prevent a $100 million toll hike AND still support the nation's highest gas tax, gathered outside the inexplicably chosen small meeting room and fairly buzzed with negative energy. Sen. Karen Spilka was "profoundly disappointed." Rep. Steven Walsh claimed North Shore and Metrowest working families (i.e., voters) had "a gun to [their] heads."

Rep. David Linsky, gifted two weeks ago with subpoena power as chair of the House Post Audit Committee, flexed that juice right away. Even after the meeting, Turnpike and Executive Office of Transportation staff could not furnish legislators or reporters with a copy of the $100 million motion that had just carried, prompting Linsky to threaten, seemingly in partial jest, one newly hired EOT official, "Do you need a subpoena?"

The governor spent part of the week in Washington, gathering with other governors to talk economic recovery with the president. The gubernatorial takeaway, public version, was $594 million in temporary Medicaid relief for the Commonwealth, a faucet that opened Wednesday as part of the $15 billion all the states will receive under the new economic stimulus.

The Legislature spent part of the week doing … not much, publicly, anyway. The Senate called a formal session for Thursday, and then scrapped it with zero public warning. The House, two weeks after committee assignments, sort of lazed through the week, and members say they are growing impatient with a pace that, aside from numerous meetings that register nil on the real-world-impact scale, is charitably described as languid.

Top deputies to Speaker Robert DeLeo, who say things like "Bob had his game face on" when he filled out committee assignments because he matched reps to skill sets, concede that it is time for the House to stop spinning wheels and begin business in earnest. It is not just the outside perception held by the viewing public, but lingering divisions over the DeLeo-Rogers fight and, more recently, DeLeo's distribution of leadership plums that have some in the House out of sorts.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Most of the dissent on whether or not to raise the gas tax came from the infirm minority, but just how to do it remains an elusive compromise.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "You're out-Matt Amorelloing Matt Amorello." - Mary Connaughton, Tuesday, to Transportation Secretary and Pike board chair James Aloisi, invoking the name of the departed Pike board chair and former state Sen. Matthew Amorello. Anytime a state government figure's name becomes suitable for use as a verb, it is cause for some review. In this case, Connaughton appeared to be referring to Aloisi's leadership style, as board meetings presided over by Amorello were notably contentious affairs. No different than Tuesday, when Patrick's newly chosen transportation chief and one of only two Romney-era holdovers on the board had at it repeatedly. Regardless, Matt Amorello, wherever he is, must have felt a little wistful.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK, NON-AMORELLO DIVISION: "We go to work, we pay our taxes, and we all feel like we're being screwed by you people." - Louis Antonellis, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 business agent, detailing Wednesday to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center board how the union feels about the state's handling of the $1 billion industry incentive, which he labeled "corporate welfare" and deploying the ever-pejorative "you people." Board officials said the incentive has created about 900 jobs so far.

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