The Hill and the Hall – April, 2008

April 4, 2008

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This Week: Deval Patrick’s budget troubles are just the beginning; teamstersCharles Yancey’s quick thinking saves a photo-op; and the sweet feet of Rob Consalvo and Steve Murphy.

We hear that Governor Deval Patrick’s budget priorities are in trouble. That’s not any great surprise. The House and Senate took most of the governor’s recommendations and tossed them in the trash last year, too.

But here’s where things get interesting. The budget crunch is about to get a lot worse in the next few years, and when it does, it’ll put Patrick’s broad promises on public safety, education, parks, and property taxes in big, big trouble. Which, of course, will put Patrick in big, big trouble.

As previously discussed, because of the significant price tag that comes along with the myriad campaign promises Patrick made, his administration must look at fiscal troubles though a political lens. It’s one thing for the legislature to delay investing in new cops or early education for a few years; it’s quite another for the governor, who’s going to have a reelection fight on his hands well before the economy’s caviar and champagne days return.

And here’s what hurts extra-hard: Whatever extra cash Beacon Hill budget writers have been able to stuff into budgets in recent years, hasn’t come from any real growth in the economy.

Instead, it’s come from the stock market (and lotto-brainwashing, obvs). When Wall Street tanks, the state’s built-in budget deficit is going to balloon like crazy, making it even less likely that Patrick will be able to check many things off his to-do list anytime soon.

Here’s a hot backroom fight to keep an eye on. On Wednesday, a week after voting to approve Cheryl (rhymes with…) Jacques’s appointment as a workers’ comp judge, Governor’s councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney (yes, it’s her) took her vote back.

It’s not clear whether the no backsies rule applies to judicial nominations, but Devaney believes Jacques told the Governor’s Council that, if confirmed, she would close her controversial campaign account. It remains active. Hence, scandal, screaming headlines, etc.

Jacques has said that she wants to hold on to her cash so she can dole it out to charity; we’ll soon see if a hot iron to the skull can change that right quick.

Teamsters are targeting anti-casino politicians. They’ve put lawmakers on notice that they’re ready to solicit opponents to run against Sal DiMasi’s minions, and are even promising to send a few into early retirement. This, after Bobby “Bullshit!” Haynes assured State House News that labor would not target anti-casino incumbents, saying, “We have no intention of beating [DiMasi] or his members up over casino gaming.”

We’ve also heard complaints from inside the State House that other unions are acting similarly uncharitably towards Reps who voted against them last month.

It’s natural that the unions would act this way. After all, without casinos, it’s unlikely that anything at all will be built in this state for the next century or so. Which means no jobs for anybody, ever. Way to go, legislature.

It didn’t seem possible, but there’s even more turnover coming to the Senate. The bleeding has been rampant over the past year, and word broke late yesterday that Robert Creedon, the affable co-chair of the judiciary committee, will be joining the stampede out of the legislature’s upper chamber. The twin lures of a fat raise and short commute are irresistible, apparently.

Shameless plugs abounded at this week’s Boston City Council meeting. Rob Consalvo pushed a resolution supporting a ban on Salvia Divinorum by urging his colleagues, repeatedly, to “Go on MyFoxBoston.com and YouTube” and “check out Fox 25’s exposé,” while Steve Murphy took the time to mention that Dunkin’ Donuts is “a very popular brand” in the greater Boston area. You don’t say!

Save of the week: Charles Yancey leaping forward and ripping the lens cap off a camera just seconds before a staffer was to shoot a photo of him and birthday gal Maureen Feeney. Nothing gets past that guy.

And a close second: Mike Ross bounding into the council chambers, beverage in hand and in real danger of missing a photo op with the state champion Catholic Memorial basketball team, shouting, “Hey, wait a minute!” They did.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job Dept: Consalvo and Murphy dazzled the crowd at Michael Contompasis’s retirement party Tuesday night with what is rumored to be some rather fancy footwork. The pair donned formal-wear and placed second in a Dancing with the Stars-themed salute to the longtime school department administrator. According to reports, the duo – the competition’s only male-male team – would have won, were it not for the rather uncharitable score of negative five that Mayor Tom Menino awarded them.

Just wondering whether that first place team will be of any use when Menino has to get his education budget passed in the coming months.

Wire services contributed to this report.

April 11, 2008

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This week: The mayor fattens his war chest, and Sen. Dianne Wilkerson continues to sweat.

Let’s start by picking on Hizzoner. Nothing gets the natives riled up like parking tickets, so Mayor Tom Menino’s $2.42 billion FY09 budget, which includes $13 million in new parking fines, is sure to be the only thing anybody in Boston ever talks about for the rest of time. Let the schools close; we demand parking amnesty now!

But seriously, the notion that the mayor is sewing great harm by balancing Boston’s budget on the backs of people who can’t manage to avoid parking in front of fire hydrants, rather than slogging through a nasty override fight, is about as dumb as the notion that kids wouldn’t be killing each other if it weren’t for these infernal T-shirts and video games. Gotta love this town.

In other City Hall news, the people who work inside City Hall still suck, just like they always have.

Are your civic outrage juices flowing? If so, please send some money to Michael Flaherty. The guy is really gonna need it. He’s not even officially in the mayor’s race yet, and it already appears that his fundraising base might be in danger of drying up.

Flaherty took in a little over $60,000 during the year’s first three months. Pocket change. He spent nearly $43,000 of it, and has around $450,000 in cash-on-hand. That’s in keeping with his 2007 fundraising patterns, when he didn’t really start raising money until May, taking in the bulk in the fall.

A look at Mayor Menino’s finances should throw a wicked scare into the Southie city councilor. The mayor has been raising money at a furious pace this year. He ended 2007 with over $973,000 in the bank, and through the end of March, had added $282,569 to that total. He has spent twice what Flaherty has – $86,000 – but has also socked away $650,000 in savings, investing in CDs and money market accounts.

Flaherty pounced on the 311 and parking ticket stories in this week’s papers, issuing a pair of press releases blasting the administration’s ineffectiveness. He has also been an outspoken (occasionally shouting and red-faced) opponent of towing. This suggests he may try to run a populist, nuts and bolts campaign, and try to out-mechanic the urban mechanic.

There’s no way Flaherty outspends Menino in this race. The mayor out-gunned him three to one last year, and that was during a City Council election. But it’s critical that he get whatever receipts he can this year, because once he is officially in this race, the pool of saps willing to cross the mayor and give money to him will only get smaller. (This is also one reason why observers believe Flaherty won’t, and can’t, declare his candidacy until after Labor Day.)

It seemed that if Dianne Wilkerson couldn’t lose last year – a year in which the powerful but embattled state senator couldn’t manage to wring 300 good signatures out of her sprawling district, and had to wage a high-wire write-in campaign against a two-headed Diaz monster and an old cop. All that self-destruction, the money troubles, the staggering sense of entitlement conveyed by the signature fiasco – and none of it seemed to matter. The woman was invincible.

Invincibility isn’t protecting her, though. Wilkerson looks to have two challengers this fall. JP’s Sonia Chang-Diaz is once again gunning for Wilkerson in September’s Democratic primary. An independent candidate, William Theodore Leonard, will sail into November’s election. That’s assuming, of course, that everyone involved can get signatures in by the end of this month. It shouldn’t be a significant hurdle, but for some reason, it is.

A third would-be challenger, Robert Patton-Spruill, pulled nomination papers for the seat but recently decided to shut down his nascent campaign and go to work for Chang-Diaz.

The Roxbury filmmaker (he shot Tim Murray’s campaign commercials, and his Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome debuts this month at theIndependent Film Fest) began gathering signatures and says his campaign could’ve been competitive, but backed out when he decided he’d be “better off using my skills behind the scenes.” And he maintains that, with more time to organize this time around, the Chang-Diaz campaign can do more than just throw a scare into the eight-term senator.

In Jamaica Plain, Patton-Spruill says Wilkerson “has issues.” He also insists that “We can be strongly competitive in Roxbury.” They’ll have to be; Chang-Diaz got rolled on Wilkerson’s turf two years ago, and it cost her the race. “African-Americans of my generation are looking for change,” Patton-Spruill says. “They’re upset at the current black leadership on Beacon Hill. The whole country is looking for new youthful voices.”

That’s some Deval Patrick Just Words stuff right there, and it’ll be fascinating to see if a netroots organizational machine can be deployed with any success at the ward level. Patton-Spruill will be building an online broadband channel for Chang-Diaz, and loading it with long-form videos – “on demand” campaigning to “show the real Sonia” and help fuel shoeleather politics.

For this campaign to work, Chang-Diaz has to make the conversation about youth, hope, change and the like. Because, otherwise, commentators will look to the 2006 results and frame the election as a race about skin color, class, and neighborhood division. And that’s certainly not a conversation many people are eager to have anytime soon.

Neither woman has to file paperwork with OCPF until the fall, so until then, we’ll all have to be content with trolling through their 2007 off-year campaign finance reports.

One big difference: Wilkerson blew through nearly $34,000 in a non-election year by spending on staffing, fundraising, phones, food, and airfare. Chang-Diaz spent $618.

The off-year donor lists are interesting as well. Chang-Diaz got money from big names like Barbara Lee, former Menino aide Howard Leibowitz, and Micho Spring in 2007. Wilkerson received support from a buttload of labor unions, as well as Bruce BollingJohn NucciMaura Hennigan, lobbyist and former House Speaker Charlie FlahertyAngela MeninoSusan Passoni, BRA planner Muhammad Ali-SalaamJerry Rappaport, Jr.Chris Iannella, and two members of the troubled Winn clan.

April 18, 2008

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This week: It’s budget season (yay!), the governor and the speaker play nice (boo!), and lessons in trout stocking from John Tobin.

It’s budget season on Beacon Hill again. And it’s apt that it should coincide, roughly, with the run-up to area colleges’ final exams. After a semester of lying around and drinking, the legislature now has to pull a week of harried all-nighters before it can knock off work for the summer.

In broad strokes, this year’s House budget is big but not unduly wicked big, is unkind to out of state corporations, hates smokers, and offers, in SpeakerSal DiMasi’s own estimation, “nothing spectacular about any new initiative.” But you already knew that already.

So, in the interest of wrapping up the week with some semi-original reporting, here’s a few of the more interesting budget skirmishes to keep an eye on in the upcoming weeks.

First, does anybody remember how badly Gov. Deval Patrick caught hell last year for cutting Shannon grant money to pay for his 1,000 new cops campaign pledge? He couldn’t have done worse if he’d gunned down Chiara Levin himself. Luckily, the House rode to the rescue and restored the critical funds in its own budget.

So this year, Patrick, being a good governor and wanting to learn from his mistakes, not only ensured that the grants are in his budget, but he crows about “bringing funding for the program to its highest level ever.” And what does the House do? It tosses those increases in the garbage. Thanks for playing. Try again next year.

Open government advocates and reporters who like to see legislators’ fingerprints on budget amendments will have to wait ’til next year, too. The House has approved its normal measures for railroading the budget through to completion from behind closed doors. As usual, a motley coalition of Republicans and cranks tried to open budget debate procedures to sunshine, and, as usual, they were overwhelmingly defeated.

When Reps begin debating the budget next week, they won’t be doing it from the floor. Rather, when they cast votes, they’ll be voting on a raft of consolidated amendments that will be pre-screened and bundled by leadership, and that members will have had a half hour to review.

The closed-door process, Brian Wallace told us, “doesn’t shine with the lobbyists or the media,” but it keeps the bottom line from ballooning out of control.

Still, on Tuesday, Minority Leader Brad Jones warned that this year’s rules have been constructed “to take a little more power from members,” because, “You will have two days to get the budget and file amendments and Ways and Means will have nine days to figure out how to tell you ‘No.’” He also suggested that the tightly-controlled process was an effort, “to protect the members from themselves.”

The Republican leader’s criticism sparked one of the year’s most excellent floor exchanges. Angelo Scaccia, chair of the House rules committee, shot over Jones, “Mr. Speaker, that’s what the order did last year. But we have some of the most creative minds that this Commonwealth has ever seen in the Legislature.”

“So the gentleman is saying the mission of the order is to stifle creativity among the members?” Jones asked. “I’m shocked that the gentleman would want to stifle creativity.”

“Oh how he twists my words,” Scaccia replied. “Oh, what a twister. Never would I want to stifle creativity in this body. Mr. Speaker, does it say ‘stupid’ across my forehead? … Maybe subterfuge is a better word than creativity.”

Later in the debate, Paul Casey landed one of the nastier (not to mention unprovoked) shots at Mayor Menino we’ve seen in a while, when he seemed to suggest that Scaccia’s desire to limit debate stemmed from his habit of breakfasting with Hizzoner:

“The gentleman would like to leave the discretion up to the leadership. What about the membership? The power of the chair, the power of the speaker is in the collective body. I understand the good gentleman from Readville understands a certain power in Boston that is unilateral. [But] we are a collective body.”

Good times.

The House also extinguished any lingering hopes that casino proponents had of sneaking expanded gambling through the back door when it barred all gaming-related amendments from the budget. So David Flynn will have to wait just a little while for that racino vote he’s been promised. It’ll be coming later. As will Christmas.

It’s been interesting to watch the official reaction from the governor’s office to the House’s proposals. Back in February, DiMasi took to Boston‘s pages and scolded Patrick for finding defeat in partial legislative victories. “He needs to understand that when he wants 200 police officers and he gets 100, that’s a success,” the speaker told me. “That’s not a failure. That’s government. It’s all compromise. I didn’t get everything I wanted in the energy bill, but we accomplished a great energy bill. I worked with him on that bill for 11 months to change the things that he wanted. I didn’t go around saying, ‘How come you didn’t agree with my energy bill six months ago?’ I claimed victory, didn’t I? That’s it. That’s a learning process.”

Fast-forward a few months. The governor’s signature public safety and education initiatives have been slashed, victims of competing ambitions andausterity. Yet Patrick’s chief budget writer, Leslie Kirwan, is telling the Globe that the administration sees “a lot to like in this budget” because “They’ve adopted many of the reforms that the governor initiated.” And then House leadership turns around and thanks Patrick for his magnanimity.

Clearly, this cannot stand. WE DEMAND THAT YOU BATTLE FOR OUR AMUSEMENT. Thank you.

Finally, the Hill and the Hall would like to congratulate our governor – a man who ran against government by photo-op and press release – on surviving the hairiest photo-op of his young administration.

Dressed in a green jacket, hat, jeans and waders, Patrick ventured into the waters of Jamaica Pond, a sizable fish (described by one onlooker as “a big [f’er]”) in his arms. “Say goodbye!” he chirped, and the fish did, struggling to leap out of the governor’s clutches and, in all likelihood, devour a nearby child. It was, thankfully, unsuccessful, as Patrick applied some sort of kung-fu death grip that subdued the creature. “That’s me hugging a fish,” Patrick joked, before setting the monster loose.

City Councilor John Tobin, who was on the scene but not outfitted in traditional park ranger’s wardrobe, had this advice for any other politicians looking to dump fish into the Commonwealth’s waterways this spring: “Be prepared,” the always-dapper politician suggested. “When touching nature and stocking a pond, always come in leather dress shoes, and a suit and tie.”

Wire services contributed to this report.

April 25, 2008

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This week: Brad Jones takes on everybody, fun with urls, and the most popular man in Boston: Thomas M. Menino.

We already know that next week’s budget debate won’t see a whole lot of actual debate. The days of the House pulling weeks worth of all-nighters and clawing over a couple thousand amendments, one after the other, are long gone. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be fireworks when Reps slog through this year’s glut of cash-money add-ons.

The latest phantom voting scandal is already more than a week old, but it doesn’t show signs of going away any time soon. With any luck, it’ll be one of the stars of the budget debate. Minority Leader Brad Jones is making sure of that.

House Republicans have filed an amendment “restoring a level of integrity to the [voting] process,” setting aside money to overhaul the chamber’s voting system. The system is antiquated and “on its last legs” anyway, Jones says. If it broke down next week, nobody would be around to fix it, because the technology that makes it run doesn’t exist anymore. So, the GOP figures, if the state’s going to have to spend money to replace the thing, it might as well do so while Charles Murphy’s St. Croix to Boston vote still has legs on talk radio.

Voting irregularities in the House are symptomatic of a larger institutional disorder. When Sal DiMasi stands atop the rostrum, he’s less a Speaker than a cat herder – and these ain’t no trained Russian circus cats, either.

Members habitually mill throughout the chamber, sitting at each other’s desks, loudly trading jokes, and totally ignoring whatever debate is happening in the front of the room. Every once in a while, a Republican or a Democratic backbencher will stand up and complain that they can’t hear. The chair will halfheartedly demand order, which will reign for forty-five seconds or so, and then the din returns.

In this sort of atmosphere, Jones says, it’s not uncommon for members to find themselves unable to walk over to their desks and vote, and wave across the chamber to have a colleague vote them green or red.

“There’s certainly a cavalier attitude,” he says, “and the outcomes are preordained, the votes aren’t close. It all feeds into it.”

Members of his caucus have consistently tried to curb phantom voting, “in a way that it’s not personal. We’ve raised the issue, but it has still happened. We had Animal House in 2000, and some of the same people are still here, and it’s become a recurring problem. I wish the answer was as easy as a memo saying, ‘Don’t do it,’ but what’s unwritten in the memo is, ‘at least not in the near future, because the press is paying attention now. But sooner or later, they’ll go on to something else, and things can go back the way they were.’”

We’ve already been treated to a preview of the lines leadership will use to dodge action. “The Speaker’s said he’s concerned about the budget. To say that with a straight face is laughable,” Jones alleges. He says that the line item wouldn’t actually affect the overall budget’s bottom line, since there’s already money in separate legislative accounts that could be used on a new vote-counting system. But an out is an out, and this year, pinching pennies is the best out proponents of the current system have.

“We’ll say, we can’t do this for $200,000, but we’ll go and spend $40 million somewhere else,” Jones says. “And if members and leadership followed the rules and treated the role of voting like the privilege it is, we wouldn’t have to spend any money.”

Crying poor will be the hot trend next week. State Treasurer Tim Cahill called members from both parties into a special legislative caucus two weeks ago and warned them, essentially, that the state’s fiscal future is borderline-screwed. Reps responded by filing 1,512 amendments to the FY09 budget. If enacted, they’d fatten the bottom line by more than $1.5 billion. By contrast, Jones says, House Republicans filed just a handful of budget amendments. If all were enacted (not a chance), the state’s bottom line would shrink by $22 million this year. “We actually listened to the Treasurer’s message,” Jones says.

The have to. The state GOP, at the legislative level, doesn’t have the clout to spearhead many of the kinds of aggressive policies Mitt Romney pushed as governor. They’re nowhere close to being able to sustain a gubernatorial veto, if they were ever so inclined. Instead, they’ve been relegated to a sort of reformist watchdog role – and there’s been no shortage of low hanging fruit.

“There’s an income tax ballot question looming,” Jones says, “and the people who are most fearful of that question are the ones giving people the biggest incentive to vote for it. They’re increasing taxes, they’re spending more money than we have, and by the way, people are worrying about $5-a-gallon gas, and how they’re going to afford to heat their homes next winter.”

In addition to the phantom voting amendment, the minority caucus is pushing an amendment eliminating the practice of inflating state pensions with unused vacation time and housing allowances – look out, Billy! It’s the type of amendment that probably should pass, but won’t. And it’s the type of sound, populist policy the party will have to chase if it’s to avoid being tossed even further into electoral oblivion this fall.

From the Department of LOL: The governor’s office sent out a press release this week touting something having to do with their Workforce Training Fund. The program’s URL? Mass.gov/wtf.

The Boston Globe outlined just how much work any potential mayoral challengers have in front of themselves, when a poll showed Mayor Meninositting on top of a staggering 72% approval rating. Running against a guy with a fat war chest is one thing, but running against a guy with a fat war chest who’s also universally beloved is a different prospect altogether.

The paper’s follow-up story brought into sharp relief the puzzle that any challenger will have to solve: Here’s the mayor, flexing and clowning around for a reporter while bullets are flying all over town, and nobody says anything about the juxtaposition of the two.

“He’s never taken a punch,” says one City Hall insider. “They usually snuff people out before they ever get in the ring.” Between the ongoing fire department soap opera and kids getting shot in the head in gentrifitastic sections of town, you’d think there would be some damage just waiting to fall on Hizzoner’s head. “That shine can be taken off.”

At the same time, this insider says, the poll shows just how impossible it might be to topple Menino. “I don’t doubt that 54% of the people in that poll had met him personally. People can’t keep up with that. And that’s where he’s different – you might be able to land a few punches, but do you really think you can get 51% of the vote against a guy who knows half the people answering a poll?”

Wire services contributed to this report.

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