Weekly Roundup — The Trap’s Been Set

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 23, 2014…. Add it to the pile, a growing heap of legislative ambition bottlenecked by competing priorities and a calendar ripe for sports metaphors.

The Senate this week powered through its annual budget debate, almost unanimously passing a $36.4 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. The stats broke down something like this: 26 hours of debate, 948 amendments considered, 291 adopted, $130 million in spending added, $60 million in new revenues captured. Many of the amendments were considered, at least publicly, for literally seconds.

While the Senate focused laser-like on its spending bill, the Governor’s Council barely got its confirmation hearing for Supreme Judicial Court chief justice nominee Ralph Gants off the ground while signs of senioritis began to creep into the Patrick administration.

The Gants hearing will resume next week, while chief of staff Brendan Ryan, the governor’s longest serving senior aide, announced his time with Gov. Deval Patrick is drawing to a close after nine years. He plans to step down after the budget process to focus on finding his next job.

Ryan plans to make a pit stop at the governor’s political action committee – the Together PAC. While Patrick said Ryan’s move to the PAC has nothing to do with his future plans, the governor suggested the PAC is simultaneously ramping up efforts to support national Democrats like Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and winding down the life of the committee – conflicting signs from someone with ambiguous future political ambitions.

Former Westfield Mayor and Energy Secretary Rick Sullivan will captain the ship for the last six months.

The budget is now set to join six other major pieces of legislation in conference with the House. And while one could argue the budget is the most important of them all and the most certain to get finished, it too is sure to test the fragile bonds between the House and Senate.

It is also the last budget for Senate President Therese Murray and Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer, who both expressed pride in the Senate’s investment in substance abuse prevention.

On some issues the House and Senate are in agreement. For instance, it’s time to allow direct shipments of wine to Massachusetts oenophiles, give tax scofflaws a window to pay their taxes without penalty, and let women (or men) buy pepper spray without a firearm identification card.

The Senate put down its marker again on the bottle bill, voting for an expansion to include water and sports drinks before voters have the chance to decide in November. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has often insisted it’s a tax he’s not willing to entertain. Whether he’s ready to relax that position remains to be seen.

And then there’s the spending, on which differences abound even if the general priorities are in the same ballpark.

Sen. Robert Hedlund, who cast the lone vote against the Senate budget, said during debate that he hoped issues like welfare reform were not falling victim to some type of inter-branch hostility or being held hostage in order to extract concessions at a later date.

Minority Leader Bruce Tarr couldn’t settle on just one sport as he gently ribbed his colleagues by noting that welfare reforms have been in conference for 189 days. Now it’s 190 days and counting. We’re entering the “red zone” or the “warning track” or the “danger zone,” Tarr said.

“I hope this isn’t some type of charade where we pass bills in the House and Senate and lull the public to sleep letting them thing we accomplished something because we haven’t,” said Hedlund, who cited this week’s election reform law as an example of solid legislating and cooperation between the branches.

The House passed an expansion of charter schools this week, and DeLeo announced he is finally ready to roll out his gun violence prevention bill after the Memorial Day weekend. Two more sticks for the fire.

Tarr closed the Senate budget debate on Thursday by presenting Brewer with a gift of a tricorn hat and high praise for the “respect” and spirit of collaboration shown by the Democrats in leadership toward his “minority corner.”

It was in stark contrast to what House GOP leaders went through this week within their own caucus.

Upset by remarks made to the press by Rep. James Lyons, of Andover, and Rep. Marc Lombardo, of Billerica, loyal supporters of Minority Leader Brad Jones entered a closed door caucus meeting on Wednesday intent on drawing a line in the sand – you’re either with us or against, but it’s time to pick sides. Lyons and Lombardo had suggested it was time for new leadership in caucus, which Jones has led since 2002 after taking over for Fran Marini.

Lyons and Lombardo unapologetically contend that Jones is too cozy with House leaders and has led Republicans away from being the type of “opposition” force to Democrats in the House that they should be. The problem for them is that support within the caucus for that viewpoint is in the minority.

With a majority of House Republicans in the same room, Rep. Matthew Beaton, of Shrewsbury, called for a vote of confidence in Jones. It was a way Jones’s loyalists thought they could nip the insurrection in the bud. And by a vote of 21-0, Republicans reaffirmed their support for Jones as their leader. As for the naysayers, they didn’t show up.

“At the end of the day we’re all most interested in electing new Republicans but that can be difficult at times when we have our own members out in the media beating up on us and on our leadership,” Beaton said after the vote.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, that consumer crusader who has fought the banks on foreclosure and challenged the market clout of large, high-priced medical service providers, opted against a major fight with one of the state’s largest employers this week when she announced a settlement with Partners Healthcare after a years-long anti-trust investigation.

The deal allows Partners to move forward with its controversial acquisition of South Shore Hospital in Weymouth and Hallmark Health Systems north of Boston in exchange for price caps and restrictions on future expansion.

Coakley’s rivals for governor largely approved, and that was probably a good thing for the Democratic frontrunner given that she had already handed her opponents plenty of material to work with.

As if her inability to accurately identify the state’s gas tax (24 cents) or even a close facsimile – she guessed 10 cents – wasn’t enough, Coakley admitted that she hadn’t reimbursed the state for the cost of her political travel since she ran for the U.S. Senate four years ago.

Perhaps that explains her lack of familiarly with the gas tax, but even Doug Rubin can’t sell that story. Enter Steve Grossman. Never one to miss a chance to score political points, Grossman called for the Inspector General to investigate Coakley’s travel expenses, only to admit later that he waited two years to pay the state back for his own political travel, which he did last August before it became a campaign issue.

Coakley was in dire need of good news by the end of the week, and it came in the form of a WBUR poll. The latest numbers show Coakley, who is widely expected to lose the delegate contest at next month’s convention to Grossman, leading the treasurer 51 percent to 7 percent. Every other Democrat in the race fared even worse.

With numbers like those she might be able to survive a few bad storylines.

Coakley also showed up in the poll as the only Democrat beating Republican Charlie Baker in a head-to-head matchup, with a 20-point lead among women even though Baker’s deficit to Coakley had shrunk from 15 points in March to 9 points.

STORY OF THE WEEK: If you had two days to spend $36.4 billion, how would you spend it? The Senate gave its answer.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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