The Hill and the Hall – February, 2008

February 1, 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, City Council gets tough, Therese Murray gets tougher, and Martha Coakley might want to call Denis Leary.

The first real Boston City Council meeting of the year came and went without the arrival of Charles Yancey’s dreaded parade of re-files. Last year, the councilor spoke for a good 45 minutes about all the great bills he didn’t get passed in 2006. His colleagues responded by wandering out of the room, taking phone calls, napping, or grabbing lunch. Not so this year!

Instead, it was Michael Flaherty who was the session’s surprise re-animator of dead legislative corpses. He brought a three-year-old snow meltingproposal back to life, and then he went all Maura Hennigan on us and started talking about potholes. It’s the surest sign yet he’s running for mayor. Or, that he’s not the only one who’s got a broken ankle he’s not telling anyone about.

Flaherty can be forgiven for recycling old homework, though. He’ll likely be way too busy hammering Tom Menino’s vision-for-vision’s-sake plan to move City Hall to Southie to come up with new legislative whatevers. The councilor and presumed mayoral aspirant thoroughly whipped administration flaks at a made-for-public-access-TV hearing last year (at which one BRA official confessed that no feasibility studies had been done before announcing the move, but that they’d be coming eventually). Flaherty now finds himself in charge of a whole committee whose sole purpose is to poke holes vet the mayor’s City Hall proposal. Not a bad way to spend the year before a mayoral race.

Mayor Menino’s people are clearly upset at the self-empowering stance the council has suddenly adopted. It’s the council’s role to ask tough questions, but there are huge chunks of the administration that see its sudden decision to do its job as a personal attack.

It may be Council President Maureen Feeney who bears the brunt of Menino’s blowback. It’s bad enough that Feeney is actively encouraging the citizenry to talk about how city government doesn’t work. As council president, she’s supposed to keep a lid on councilors’ pent-up ambitions. Instead, with her citywide summit and Flaherty’s special City Hall committee, she’s chosen to unleash those forces.

Plus, Sam Yoon is promising to be an aggressive chair of the council’s reinvigorated post audit and oversight committee, and to ferret out all sorts of governmental malfeasance. (The Herald’s editorial board likely couldn’t be happier if David Scondras showed up on their steps with a bottle of red wine.)

Non-vile retribution will surely follow. Angry, obscenity-laden phone calls are nothing new around here, and arguments are already erupting in the hallways.

“This body is gonna go to battle this year,” says a City Hall source. “They sense a weakness, and they’re going to attack.”

The boys on the Hill just can’t get along. They’re too busy fighting about taxes, about casinos, about whether or not they’re fighting at all. And the longer this plays out, the bigger opening it presents to Senate President Therese Murray.

She showed signs this week that she’s prepared to play a pivotal role in pushing policy through the Deval-versus-Sal logjam.

First, Murray absolutely destroyed the Commonwealth’s political establishment – particularly Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry – for falling in line behind Barack Obama.

“I don’t want to be pushed aside anymore,” Murray said at a breakfast Tuesday morning. “I don’t want to be patted on the head, saying, ‘You did a good job on that, but now we got this young person, we got this attractive man, because you can’t get elected because the media said you couldn’t, because the polls said you couldn’t. We’re going to put this guy out front. And by the way we need your help, and could your organize this or that?’ I’m not doing that anymore.”

The night before, at a Clinton fundraiser, she threw even heavier punches. “She went off,” Rep. Mike Moran told State House News. “She was great… The place went crazy when she finished her speech.”

Murray then bucked both Patrick and DiMasi on the state’s budget. She buried Patrick’s decision to spend $300 million in casino money next year, despite being a supporter of legalized gambling. Murray also said that she was looking at ways to shoehorn a version of Patrick’s tax loophole plan past the speaker and into “our budget in some way.”

There is word that Murray is close to unveiling a high-visibility measure that’ll tackle health insurance premiums head-on, and the two-way dance that dominated Beacon Hill last year suddenly gets a whole lot more complicated. And a lot more interesting.

Attorney General Martha Coakley appeared to make a dry run of her Saint Patrick’s Day breakfast material when she addressed the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. Here’s hoping that the AG – an intriguing gubernatorial candidate down the road – has Hill, Holiday on speed dial. A sampling of the laff lines that weren’t:

-“I’ve brought along a few slides,” she said. “A brief photo journal of a year in the life of an Attorney General.” Flash to a beaming Alberto Gonzales. “Whoops – wrong attorney general!” Five people chuckled. It was the morning’s most successful joke.

-“By the way,” she ventured, after mentioning Turner Broadcasting’s $2 million Mooninite bounty, “with $2 million in ’07 and over $400 million in ’08 for the Big Dig, I’ve got to find some really deep pockets for ’09. Any volunteers let me know!”

-“As the year progressed, we confronted all sorts of misbehaviors. Last summer, 13 Wendy’s franchises closed without warning. Customers wanted to know, ‘Where’s the beef?”’ This flashed on the screen.

-“We were very active on the consumer protective front, but one ‘safe product’ issue we missed was apparently the widespread use of electric popcorn poppers for cooking squirrel. As presidential candidate Mike Huckabee noted last week when we talked about his collegiate days in the south, apparently, it spread to Massachusetts.” Cut to a Photoshop job of Mitt Romney holding a squirrel pie. “We need to get on that one. It’s very dangerous for consumers.”

Wire services contributed to this report.

February 8, 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 fire fighters vent, the T is broke, and the legislature is jammed.

It was, by all accounts, a bizarre scene at City Hall on Wednesday when the Boston firefighters union met with members of the City Council.

“What they really should’ve done is convene the Council psychologist,” says a source. “They seem crazed, like they’re living in denial. I get it – they’re feeling pressure, the leaks are pissing them off, they feel like they’re being dragged through the mud. But nothing good can be coming from them fighting drug testing. Fifty minutes of that one hour meeting was just them venting. There were no talking points. It was just stream of consciousness emotion.”

As far as we’ve been able to ascertain, the union’s vaunted PR firm was not in attendance.

The MBTA is broke. So says the T’s general manager, Dan Grabauskas. The agency is facing a $75 million deficit next year, even in the face of massive fare hikes and a wicked successful crackdown on fare evasion. It’s struggling with a massive debt load, and Grabauskas’s broke-as-a-joke statements were clearly designed to goad the state into bailing out the struggling bureaucracy. (We’ve seen this strategy before, of course.)

Grabauskas isn’t lying when he says the T is drowning in debt (accounting for an unheard-of 27 cents of every dollar it blows). But when Beacon Hill observers read Grabauskas’s woe-is-us comments in the Globe, they didn’t see the key words mentioned a single time—by the GM, the CFO, or anybody else: Operating costs.

“Before you say, ‘We need more revenue,’ you have to look at costs,” says House Minority Leader Brad Jones.

And they are frightening. Consider this passage from last year’s scathing Transportation Finance Commission Report:

The MBTA has long been known as having among the nation’s highest operating costs, and cost control was a key element of Forward Funding. The MBTA has not come close to meeting the objectives … that growth in operating costs would be only 2.5 percent per year for the period between FY 2000 and FY 2007. In actuality, the rate of growth over that period has been 5.0 percent per year. By FY 2007, the difference between planned and actual operating expenses was $143 million per year.

In other words, if the T had controlled its costs like it was supposed to this decade, its $75 million deficit would be a healthy surplus. Instead, it has continued to offer one of the nation’s most generous benefits packages – early retirement with a full pension and free health care.

“Health care costs need to be addressed aggressively,” says Mike Widmer, president of the Mass Taxpayers Foundation and a member of the TFC.According to the commission’s report, health care eats up 44 percent of all fare revenue; by 2026, that figure is forecast to be 94 percent, assuming fares grow with inflation.

As the T’s management ratchets up its campaign to alter, or even end, Forward Funding, the discussion could digress into a nasty fight over the benefits. Management certainly isn’t blind to the costs of their benefits, and their silence suggests either intransigence, or cowardice. They may be hoping that the legislature will do their union-busting dirty work for them.

There are those in the legislature who want nothing more than to put the T on a severe austerity diet (Republican leadership has bills pending that would fold the agency into the state’s insurance and pension systems, moves that could cover the bulk of next year’s deficit). But they’re awaiting Gov. Deval Patrick’s much-talked about MassTrans proposal. And even if MassTrans does get filed soon, it likely wouldn’t see action until late 2008, at the earliest.

And in the meantime, the wheels continue to fall off the bus.

Meanwhile, as the legislature waits on the governor’s transportation reform package, discontent seems to be bubbling up from the right side of the aisle. Jones, the House Minority Leader, is frustrated that his T reform bills haven’t gone anywhere – and that nothing else has, either.

“I recognize that [Patrick] has to come in, put his oar in the water and row, but we filed these bills to get the ball started, and it would’ve been a good first step. The legislature’s reluctant to act. We haven’t been doing much. We meet one day a week. It’s frustrating. You’ve got school vacation coming up, and after that, it’s March and it’s the budget, and the next thing you know, we’re in July. This is shaping up to be a pretty sparse year.

“And for all the promises of one-party government, the record doesn’t match that rhetoric. When there’s two parties, both sides have to justify their successes; they need to get things done. We’re going to get to the point in the calendar where we have to say, what can we get done?”

Asked whether the governor’s bio-tech initiative will emerge next week, as scheduled, Jones responded, “We’re not very good at hitting deadlines.”

What are they good at? Running for office, for one. Which is convenient, because with two Senate seats opening up in a single night last week, the special election train hasn’t slowed down one bit. An early, obvious choice to succeed outgoing Senator Pam Resor is Jamie Eldridge – provided he can put some cash into that meager-looking bank account of his.

And finally, now that Mitt Romney’s campaign for president has ended. Who’ll we make fun of now?

February 15, 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 Gov and the Speaker get along? Those State Senate openings; and what’s up with Deval’s new look?

Governor Deval Patrick found out what it feels like to be governor last week, as Sal DiMasi’s House finally – finally – got to work advancing the governor’s agenda. It’s only been, what, thirteen months since the inauguration? Patrick saw his beloved $1 billion biotech bill emerge from committee, and here’s hoping the cost of inaction isn’t more than a billion large.

More importantly, at least politically, this week saw the speaker reverse course and fall in line with the governor’s long-stalled plan to change the state’s corporate tax code. For the past year, Patrick’s tax plan has been panned as a burden on business and a recipe for economic disaster. Now, suddenly, the speaker is not only acceding to the governor’s plan, but using the word “reform” to refer to the new taxes.

What gives?

First, the state’s business community seems to have bought into DiMasi’s newfound logic. Taxing big out-of-state businesses isn’t such a bad idea, if it can be leveraged to slash corporate tax rates and freeze unemployment payments. DiMasi’s budget outline would lower taxes from 9.5 percent to 7, while Patrick’s would only see them fall to 8.3 percent. That reduction, combined with the unemployment freeze, DiMasi argued Tuesday, would mean that the “actual contribution” from all the state’s businesses would be “only $54 million” more in the short term, and revenue neutral after three years.

That’s all well and good, but when asked why, if neutrality was the guiding principle that finally swung him on board, the plan couldn’t be revenue neutral right away, DiMasi sounded a lot like his counterpart in the Corner Office. The state, he said, needed the money.

Two weeks ago, State House News reported, “Aides to the governor say he’s positioned strategically, and are confident they’ve got House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi boxed into a set of unappetizing policy alternatives: come up with his own revenue ideas, relent to deep cuts in popular programs, draw heavily from the stabilization account, or hop aboard Patrick’s own plans to raise money.” Cigarette tax aside, we learned Tuesday that there are no new revenue ideas, and with a massive budget deficit, something had to give. So something did.

DiMasi notably brushed aside a question about why he’d changed his mind on the issue. “I wouldn’t say I’ve changed my position,” he said. Had he not been against closing the loopholes? Is that just us misremembering? Pressed on the matter, DiMasi told a reporter, “You must’ve been reading too much of your own news reports!”

Massive bleeding continues to afflict the state senate. In the past week, “Boston Ed” Augustus announced that he won’t be seeking reelection, and the fevered rumors surrounding Marian Walsh’s imminent judgeship reached an even greater sense of inevitability.

Last week, senators Pam Resor and Robert Antonioni announced their retirement, and saw the departures of Jarrett BarriosRobert Havern, and President Robert Travaglini. That’s a ton of turnover for a 40-person body.

Speculation about Augustus’s seat has thus far focused on Karyn Polito and John Fresolo, though it’s the fight for Walsh’s not-open-just-yet seat that will be the real fun. There are few inside the State House who believe Majority Leader John Rogers will wind up taking a run, leaving Mike Rush the presumptive frontrunner.

City Councilors John Tobin and Rob Consalvo are said to be intrigued, but highly noncommittal. And with good reason. There’s probably only room for one city councilor in the race, especially with close friendships involved. And the senate seat would come at a hefty price: It would cost the upwardly-mobile pol $20,000 in pay and a shot at the mayor’s race.

The single biggest topic of conversation at the State House this week wasn’t taxes, biotech, or reps lusting after seats in the upper chamber, though. It was the governor’s “aerodynamic” new haircut. It’s cropped more closely to his head, and this fact has inspired a remarkable stream of chatter. Some of it has been positive, some not, but we’ve heard that so many people remarked upon Patrick’s cut that he took to assuming every compliment was a veiled jab.

Word of this sensitivity led sympathizers to offer yet more compliments, which couldn’t have been helpful, either. The last thing he probably wanted to hear when wrapping up a press availability was a reporter eagerly yelping, “I think it’s a good haircut! Really!”

But that is, of course, exactly what he heard.

February 22, 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: Coastal legislators are peeved, casino proponents are suspicious, and the new Pike Director offers a bleak, yet highly quotable, assessment.

These are strange times for the state’s coastal legislators. First, in November, they were subjected to an energy bill sneak attack that opened up their coastlines to unfettered wind farm development. They balked, as did the Senate, which had been pushing an oceans management bill authored by SenatorRobert O’Leary (pictured) as a way to set up a framework for plopping turbines down in the water.

The senate had threatened to hold Sal DiMasi’s energy bill hostage if the House didn’t act on their oceans bill, so House leadership pushed a gutted, bizzaro version of the senate’s bill to the floor last week.

Turns out, it wasn’t a whole lot more than a reworded version of an amendment leadership tried to cram through in November—reportedly at the behest of prospective developer Jay Cashman.

“It’s not much of an oceans bill,” O’Leary told us. “It doesn’t set up a meaningful planning process that has any teeth, and without that, it’s just an exercise, something that ends up on a shelf. I’m disappointed.”

O’Leary did pronounce himself “optimistic” that he’ll be able to bring the House around in conference committee. But until he does, don’t expect to see too much action coming out of the energy conference committee.

The House’s coastal delegation feels even less sanguine about the whole exercise. They’d begged and pleaded to get an audience with the Speaker after the energy bill fiasco. When they finally did meet, they were told to expect a full debate on the turbine amendment. Instead, what they got was a chance to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a bid by Dartmouth Rep. John Quinn to strike the turbine language from the House version.

“The coastal reps are not happy at all,” says a House source. “There’s outrage. There was tremendous pressure brought to bear on people over this.”

“The whispers on the floor were, ‘Quinn is right, but I’m not crossing the Speaker on this one,’” another House source adds.

The wild card in all this outrage soup: With energy and oceans both in conference committee, there’s been speculation that the House could be playing ball on the Buzzard’s Bay turbines on two fields at once. We’ve also heard speculation that, if a logjam develops, the Senate might be willing to trade its more robust oceans bill for the House’s wind amendment—provided the House takes clear ownership of the thing by reinserting it into its signature energy initiative.

Just when state government started to look like it was ready to get working, it up and quit on us. The February school vacation week brought much of the normal activity in the State House to a screeching halt. Schedules were light, meetings were canceled, reporters were bored stupid, and elected leaders were, largely, absent from Beacon Hill.

The week would’ve been a whole lot more exciting, had a casino hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday gone off as planned. It too was canceled and rumors are that we won’t see any gambling action until the latter part of next month.

The State House News Service reported that the mid-school-vacation hearing had fallen victim to the legislature’s notoriously slow, deliberative pace. Reportedly, members of the Senate—the body that actually favors Governor Deval Patrick‘s proposal—”balked at holding such a big-ticket hearing during school vacation week.”

The legislature rarely does any business during vacation weeks (many members avoid the building altogether), so the cancellation shouldn’t come as a great surprise. That hasn’t staunched the flow of conspiracy theories, though.

Senator Michael Morrissey, a vocal casino proponent, told State House News that the cancellation owed less to legislators’ own penchant for relaxation than it did to anti-casino forces’ fear of the governor’s sudden, staggering successes. “I think that was the attempt, was to undercut the support that’s been building,” he theorized. “That’s how I view it. Good deal if you can get away with it.”

In conversations in the building this week, Morrissey’s theory found more than a few believers.

“It didn’t pass the smell test,” Rep. Brian Wallace tells us about the schedule maneuvering. “I was shocked” that the hearing was scheduled for school vacation week. “A lot of people had already left. Marty Walsh was on an airplane when he found out about it. People assume there isn’t a lot that happens this week.”

Wallace, the legislature’s go-to guy for casino head-counting, pronounced the 160-member body largely up for grabs—a fact that only heightens the stakes (and the likely circus-like atmosphere) for next month’s casino hearing. It’ll likely be one and done—one hearing, an unfavorable committee report, and then a floor vote in April or May.

“The majority are undecided at this point,” Wallace says. “There are 40 on one side, 40 on the other, and a whole lot of undecideds.”

Nearly lost in the morass of midwinter vacation was new Pike director Alan LeBovidge’s hilarious, impossibly bleak, and highly quotable appearance before the authority’s board on Tuesday.

LeBovidge compared the Pike’s bureaucrats to psychologically damaged citizens living under “dictatorship” and “absolute monarchy,” and said, “When I came here, I felt like a little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke.”

His best, and most depressing, one-liner? “Unfortunately, when I took this job, I had a sense that there was a simple solution.” Zing!

Wire services contributed to this report.

February 29, 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: Sal’s work on his short game threatens the commonwealth, or not, John Tobin fires a shot across Tom Menino‘s bough, plus PervsCasinos! And Chuck Turner!

The most talked-about man on Beacon Hill continued to be widely talked about this week, as news that Speaker Sal DiMasi has been playing golf with a decades-old friend, while not playing golf with a guy with a horrific haircut sparked an ethics uproar. It’s the surest sign yet that the state GOP has given up trying to win elections altogether, and will now focus solely on lobbing wobbly ethics complaints at its Democratic foes. (And that Scot Lehigh hasn’t met a bad golf metaphor he doesn’t like.)

The threat golf poses to democracy extends far beyond the current casino debate, though. Boston minorities who enjoy voting had better watch their backs: DiMasi occasionally hits the links with former Speaker Tom Finneran. Can federal voting rights violationsdisgrace, and tears be far behind?

Legislators returned from their mid-winter jaunts to Orlando this week, and immediately got back to doing the people’s business. Which is to say, they threw themselves neck-deep into pervsPervspervspervspervspervs. A question nobody else has asked yet: Have any of these pervs ever gone golfing with Donald Trump? Somebody get Peter Torkildsen on the phone, quick!

Chuck Turner is one of the few city councilors who actually hasn’t been mentioned as a mayoral wannabe, but perhaps he should throw his hat in the race. Soaring rhetoric is king lately. During an otherwise excruciating debate on whether or not to accept piles of rare public housing money from the feds, Turner uncorked what may be the non-election election year slogan of the year: “This is America. Some benefit, while others move backwards. Isn’t it time we had a policy where we all move forward?”

If David Axelrod is reading this, no, you guys can’t borrow that one, too.

Turner’s paean came after one of the young session’s most bizarrely contentious debates. He and Charles Yancey had railed against the demolition andreconstruction of Roslindale’s Washington-Beech public housing development because the new housing complex, while not built in the cheap, failed, rotting mid-century style, would push residents toward home ownership, thus reducing the stock of public housing units, and thus also totally hate on poor people.

As Yancey put great wind behind this viewpoint, Council President Maureen Feeney (a self-described “project kid” who grew up in Dorchester’sFranklin Field development) shook her head and shot the Mattapan councilor one of the icier looks we’ve seen inside City Hall in a while.

How wicked excited is Mayor Menino that, thanks to councilor John Tobin, the city council will be debating term limits just as election season heats up? Obviously, the term limits proposal will be a vehicle for mayoral critics to paint Menino as this generation’s Kevin White – a tenacious mayor who remains in office, past his time, for tenacity’s sake. What remains to be seen is whether this little trick can work better than it did when Maura Hennigan pulled it three years ago.

Hey, have you heard about this casino thing? Yeah. It’s kind of a big deal. And after last week’s abrupt cancellation, the stakes for the legislature’s upcoming gambling hearing (set for a to-be-determined date in March when committee co-chairs Dan Bosley and Jack Hart can align their schedules) are growing by the day.

House members are already being polled for the big vote, even though a full third of the House is said to remain undecided. Meanwhile, reports had Gov. Deval Patrick also taking a number of casino-related meetings with lawmakers this week.

And while the pro-casino side has already lined up labor and municipal leaders to lobby fence-sitters, Bosley is hoping the hearing gives him the ammunition he needs to show his colleagues that Patrick’s rosy predictions don’t hold water.

“We’ll ask the administration what made them come to these conclusions, we’ll look at what’s happened in other states, we’ll try to collect a lot of data,” Bosley says. “We’re looking at this from an economic perspective. My two basic questions are, what does it cost to bring that money back from Connecticut, and where does that money come from?”

Bosley’s looking forward to the hearing, he says, because it’ll finally be a chance to have a “wider discussion about costs and ramifications. That hasn’t happened publicly. The public discussion has been very baseline – it’s been, ‘We’re losing money to Connecticut, and people want to gamble anyway.’”

While the hearing should be quite constructive to anybody actually willing to sit through it – the showdown over the governor’s background research should be especially contentious – Bosley doesn’t expect many of the gambling advocates who’ll testify to stray far off message, because they’ll be playing to the press, not the committee.

“It’s not a good issue for the press,” he says, matter-of-factly. “The good issues are, there’s friction between the governor and the speaker. We’ll take testimony all day, and maybe six lines of testimony will show up the next day. The governor’s going to come down and say, ‘We’re going to have 30,000 jobs,’ and I’ll say, ‘No, you’re not.’ And we’ll go back and forth and have a wider discussion, but that’s what shows up in the paper. And the proponents know this. So they never have to go deeper.”

Wire services contributed to this report.

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