Reporter's Notebook: Council okays budget with unaccustomed ease

By 
Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Jul. 5, 2012

City councillors last week signed off on Mayor Thomas Menino’s $2.5 billion fiscal 2013 budget. The budget vote, which usually draws criticism from District 4 Councillor Charles Yancey, was unanimous and uncharacteristically matter of fact. Menino’s press office, in a press release hours after the 13-0 tally, re-used some of the quotes by the mayor that were deployed in the April release announcing the budget and its highlights.

The budget, for the fiscal year that began on Sunday, shows an increase of 3 percent – or $72 million – over last year’s bill. The five-year $1.8 billion capital budget, which includes funding for a number of projects in Dorchester and Mattapan as well as money for the redevelopment of Dudley Square and its long-neglected Ferdinand building and for 40 miles of rebuilt roadways, was also approved in the unanimous vote.

The public schools budget received a separate vote, with a lone “no” from District 8 Councillor Michael Ross, who emerged as a vigorous critic of the school department’s proposal to relocate a Mission Hill school out of his district and into Jamaica Plain.

The Menino administration pointed out that five teen centers will be undergoing a redesign effort and noted an increase in funds for the Boston Police Department’s Neighborhood Watch Unit.

Harvard institute offers report on three strikes bill
As a six-member committee of legislators worked on an overhaul of the state’s sentencing laws, a Harvard Law institute issued a report saying there is “no need” for the legislation.
The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, run by Prof. Charles Ogletree, an opponent of the legislation, released the 26-page report.

“It will further burden our severely overcrowded prisons, and risk the safety of employees and prisoners,” Ogletree said in a statement accompanying the report. “Our communities of color will suffer the most from these changes.”

The bills (S 2080 and H 3818), known together as “three strikes” legislation, tackle changes to the habitual offender laws. The bills passed the Senate unanimously, and overwhelmingly in the House, with the exception of “no” votes from the caucus of black and Latino legislators.

The report claims the bills will cost the state an additional $125 million a year. “It is not too late,” the report says. “The bills can be stopped by the Conference Committee or amended to target the most serious repeat offenders, while preserving resources for programs that actually improve public safety and strengthen our communities.”

Crimes listed as “strikes” in the bills should be narrowed to “only the most serious offenses,” and habitual offenders with life sentences should be eligible for parole after serving 25 years, the report says.

“By properly limiting the applicability of the habitual offender provisions, Massachusetts will be able to reinvest in its people through education, treatment, training, and community development programs,” the report concludes. “Unlike mandatory prison sentences, these programs have a proven effect on reducing recidivism and, better still, strengthening our communities to prevent the creation of future offenders.”

With the conference committee working on a compromise – state Rep. Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat is keeping an eye on the negotiations – the content of the legislation has shifted in the last few months, and potentially shortened the shelf-life of the report.

The State House News Service asked the head of the House half of the conference committee, Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, about the request from groups to postpone action on the bills. O’Flaherty noted that the Judiciary Committee has considered similar bills over the years. “In terms of delaying an issue because of further study, respectfully I would suggest that’s not where we are at this point,” he said.
Lawmakers are working under a July 31 deadline for controversial and complex bills since they adjourn formal sessions after that day and turn their focus onto the campaign trail.

It’s another girl for the Forrys
On Sunday night, state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry gave birth to a baby girl, Norah Marianne, who joins John Patrick (8), Conor Joseph (5), Madeline Casey (2), and Dad Bill at the Forry homestead. Mother and baby, who was born at St. Elizabeth’s at 9:17 p.m., are said to be doing well.
Rep. Forry, a Dorchester Democrat who has served in the House since 2005, is married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry.

Quote of Note: Gov. Patrick on whether the individual mandate is a tax
With policy dealt with – the Supreme Court deciding to uphold President Obama’s health care reform effort – talk inside and outside the Beltway quickly turned to politics last week: What does Chief Justice John Roberts’ designation of the individual mandate requiring people to buy health insurance as a tax mean for the 2012 presidential election.

Republicans immediately seized on the development as a weapon to batter Democrats. All Republicans except the de facto party leader, Mitt Romney. If the Affordable Care Act’s mandate is a tax, then so is the mandate in the similar health reform effort Romney championed in Massachusetts while governor (and, to be fair, was also approved by an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature). A Romney surrogate told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Monday that the former governor believes the mandate is a “penalty.”

It’s worth checking in on what Romney’s Democratic successor, who has spent some of his time in office implementing and seeking to tweak the Massachusetts health care reform law, is saying: “I don’t care what it’s called,” Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters. “What it is is a solution and it’s an important one. It’s one we’ve tried here in Massachusetts. It’s working very well and it’s done a lot of good for a lot of people.”

Patrick, a former assistant attorney general under President Clinton, added: “I’m not the Constitutional scholar on this. Look, I’m not afraid of the word tax. I know that you like to ask people in elective office and watch them squirm when the word is used. That’s not my issue. That’s not my concern. And I think it doesn’t help to quibble over whether the penalty is a penalty or whether it’s something else masquerading as a penalty.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out updates to Boston’s political scene at The Lit Drop, located at dotnews.com/litdrop. Material from State House News Service was used in this report. Email us at newseditor@dotnews.com and follow us on Twitter: @LitDrop and @gintautasd.

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