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Weekly Round-Up: 'The Transitional Element'

Recap and analysis of the week in state government

By Jim O’Sullivan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 14, 2010…….And so the defining image, so far, of this campaign has been sketched, and it is not Charles Baker tiptoeing discreetly into a ladies’ room or Tim Cahill selecting pricey swatches of art deco wallpaper for the Lottery suites. It’s Deval Patrick emerging, phoenix-like, from the mucky, Cadillac-littered and briskly taxed floor of the Charles River, triumphantly gripping a jagged piece of steel clamping.

The vision, of course, is dependent on the accuracy of those Rasmussen Reports polls, the most recent of which, released Wednesday, showed Patrick with a laser-show performance relative to his previous showings: 45 percent. Republican Charles Baker also moved up, to 31 percent, while Independent Treasurer Timothy Cahill hemorrhaged from the brutal Republican Governors Association ads that have depicted him as a pay-to-play specialist, drain-circling to 14 percent in, at least in this snapshot, fulfillment of the Mihosian prophecy that the unenrolled are the woebegone in this commonwealth.

Some nimbleness was required on the part of the Patrick messages-toters, a little recalibration of their standards for public opinion surveys after expending much effort over the last few years trashing Rasmussen.

If the polls are right, then the governor’s display of competence during The Great Dehydration of 2010 almost certainly factored, coming on the heels as it did of his handling of The Great Floods of 2010. Not far behind will be speculation that, instead of justice’s robes perhaps the governor’s next occupational garment could be a FEMA windbreaker.

And there was the guv again Thursday, explaining, sort of, how state and local law enforcement had worked with the feds to track down suspects in Watertown and Brookline connected to the attempted Times Square bombing. Thwarter of terrorism! Repairer of infrastructure! Climber of polls! Retriever of mojo!

The Baker team reasoned that the poll held good news for the GOP, too, pointing to Cahill’s precipitous slide and apparent fundraising shortcomings as proof that Baker was what they said he was all along: the only reasonable and viable anti-Patrick. Baker didn’t have the best week, featured on the front of the Herald Thursday smoking some legal tender and starting to run into a little resistance on the whole telling-the-truth thing, not an exercise folks have come to expect from politicians but one they enjoy nonetheless.

Cahill’s camp was a little quieter about the poll, perhaps finding solace in the fact that it is, indeed, May.

Which is when in even-numbered years the sands of legislative time begin to sift inexorably to the bottom of the glass. The House has done a little mini-spring break the last two weeks, but has a crime package, economic development bill and, if it knows what’s good for it, Senate President Therese Murray’s health care cost control bill to pass, then conference committees on those, the budget, the gambling bill once it gets through the Senate, and, hilariously, a kayak safety bill.

The Senate on Thursday passed a municipal finances management bill, packed with small-bore measures to help cities and towns rein in costs, but went beyond the House version by swiping at some of the less savory pension policies that apparently escaped last year’s ballyhooed reform efforts. The bill caps pension earnings, targets select salary spikes that yield higher retirement payouts, and aims at tomfoolery like jumping classifications to qualify for higher pensions. Also, Supreme Court Justices would have to pay into the system to receive benefits.

Republicans cut a deal to postpone serious debate on plan design, which would grant municipal officials the power to bypass unions in structuring employee health insurance packages, until the budget, with the assent of both mayors and labor. Sen. Robert Hedlund scored partially with an agreement that the Senate Post Audit Committee would hold an oversight hearing on 40B – alternately called the “affordable housing” or the “anti-snob” law, with matching degrees of limited accuracy – which Inspector General Gregory Sullivan last year called “one of the biggest financial scandals in state history.” Pretty impressive pantheon, that.

By tucking pension reform into the muni bill, the Senate saddles the House with having to respond with its own pension fixes, slipping those policy questions into the pipeline. For a group that has evinced intermittent – at best – talent for walking and chewing gum, the obstacle course is growing crowded, and the scale of legislation receiving a verdict on its merits and not the chances its passage would help dislodge another bill – well, it grows lighter.

“I think as the days grow shorter, I suspect the opportunity to try to negotiate to get things done … it's not uncommon at the end of the session for that to take place,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charles Murphy.
Then Murphy clarified.

“I would suggest negotiating is another word for horsetrading.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: A poll makes Deval Patrick smile.

MUDDLED TEA LEAVES: Democrat Peter Smulowitz ran as an outsider and as a “liberal’s liberal” and was positively shellacked Tuesday by a veteran House Republican in the special election for the state Senate seat held since 2001 by Scott Brown, who is now a U.S. senator. Does this mean that Richard Ross is Deval Patrick’s new pal, his fellow Custer against the ill-mannered marauders of Incumbent Hill? Or is he the Second Coming of Scott Brown, the GOP’s hour come round at last? It was tough to tell, in part because it’s such an odd district and shaped, in the words of hard-right Franklin activist Daniel Kerrigan, “like some kind of foolish snake.” Smulowitz’s decision to go scorched-earth on Rep. Lida Harkins in the primary left Democrats steamed, perhaps none more so than Harkins herself – who, when asked Wednesday for whom she’d cast her ballot, replied, “I’m not telling you.” Which is Needhamese for “Richard Ross.”

THE TECHNOLOGICAL EDUCATION OF STEVE BREWER: A few weeks back, Sen. Stephen Brewer confessed, “I wouldn’t know a Twitter from a fritter.” Then, suddenly Thursday, Brewer took the floor and admonished Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, “Get off the CrackBerry over there.” Yet another example of the facile minds at work at the problems facing the Commonwealth. Next week: the molecular computer and massive parallelism. In related news, Brewer, the vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, was asked about his prospects for replacing Steve Panagiotakos when the latter steps down early next year, with that tantalizing UMass-Lowell chancellorship hanging out there if all the pieces fit and Marty Meehan gets the UMass presidency. “I’m remaining radio silent on all discussions,” Brewer replied.

PAGING FATHER MERRIN: Add to the list of Sen. Steven Baddour’s monikers – Pompadour Baddour, the Mane of the Merrimack, less printable offerings – a mildly more, uh, fiendish nickname, offered Thursday during municipal management debate by Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Republican who made whimsical reference to a GOP takeover of the Upper Chamber. Tarr called Baddour, a Methuen blue dog Democrat, “the transitional element,” marking him in somewhat demonic language as the physical embodiment of prospective fundamental electoral alteration.

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