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If crime bill dies, let the finger-pointing begin

To hear some advocates of the crime bill tell it, Gov. Deval Patrick is risking the legislation’s passage with his amendment.

“His actions to jeopardize the passage of the crime bill are both ill-timed and ill-advised by trying to amend a good and balanced bill with an extraordinary measure to protect repeat violent criminals, with precious little time remaining in the legislative session,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said in a statement, after Patrick announced his move on Saturday.

Patrick’s moves “at the 11th hour are reprehensible and reckless,” said Jerry Flynn, executive director of the New England Police Benevolent Association.

But any blame being thrown around cannot be laid entirely at Patrick’s feet. The Legislature deserves its fair share, too, as it races to finish up its session with about 36 hours to go.

This sort of thing happens often enough that you’d think it would prompt a change in behavior.

The plot is predictable to any Beacon Hill observer: Lawmakers frantically shoot bills over to Patrick’s desk as the clock tick-tocks. The closer we all get to the end of formal sessions, the more a fever builds under the Golden Dome. Insert your own colorful comparison of legislators and procrastinating high school students here.

Given the nature of the building – the Democratic supermajority and the amount of control House and Senate leaders wield over their members – they can hardly say they didn’t see any of this coming. As the State House News Service’s Michael Norton noted this morning:

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have left much to chance this session - the schedule will be so tight over the next day and a half that even the possibility of any extended amount of debate on major bills and veto override attempts could derail those bills and others.

Even if the Legislature is able to sign off on conference committee reports on energy, transportation, economic development, children’s services and an omnibus health care cost control and payment system overhaul, legislative leaders are also giving Gov. Deval Patrick the upper hand in policymaking this year since they’ll be out of session and unable to act on amendments and vetoes he returns starting Aug. 1.

It’s worth noting that the conference committee – House and Senate negotiators tasked with hammering out a compromise – spent eight months working on a crime bill compromise before finally kicking out a bill on the night of July 17. (The House and Senate approved the bill overwhelmingly in the following days.) Patrick gets 10 days to review a bill, and he responded on Saturday by amending it and sending it back to the Legislature.

Lawmakers knew what Patrick wanted in the crime bill – sometimes also called the three strikes bill, or Melissa’s Bill -- and they knew the possibility of amendments existed. The chief negotiator of the compromise bill in the Senate, Cynthia Creem, noted that Patrick wanted a bill with judicial discretion.

If the crime bill does end up dying this session, then there will be plenty of blame to go around on Beacon Hill. And something to put at the top of the agenda when the Legislature starts up formal sessions again.