State House update: Squabbling breaks out in the speaker’s realm; budget gap aired

A well-lit stage in a network affiliate television studio newly enriched by all the electoral activity over the past 365 and its lucrative accoutrements: advertising dollars.

WCVB’s Janet Wu, the diminutive, imitation-Ugg-sporting shellback of a million liveshots, who routinely withers the House frat boys with a microphone and a glare, has just put to Candidate X a question about his/her qualifications to be the Democratic nominee for attorney general. Candidate X states his/her bona fides, then wheels on the incumbent, though “incumbent” is a bit misleading because the person’s only been there seven months and was elected by a couple score of fellow Democrats, potentially even on a secret ballot.

That’s the scenario if Attorney General Martha Coakley staves off state Sen. Scott Brown in the Jan. 19 special election to succeed Paul Kirk in the U.S. Senate. That would trigger the Legislature’s prerogative to select its own attorney general to serve out Coakley’s term, and the heat has been on Speaker Robert DeLeo to pick one of his deputies. Heat was also on the speaker this week to open the books on the $378,000 that’s been spent on outside legal counsel for House documents requested by federal prosecutors pressing the corruption case against former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi.

“General,” Candidate X says, voice fairly dripping with sarcasm, “those are my qualifications. While I was fighting crime/outing corruption/cashing a fat non-profit salary for little work, you were voting for Sal DiMasi for speaker maybe even four different times, including a few months before he was indicted, and he handpicked you for a committee post. Then you stood by while the House spent $400,000 of recession-era taxpayer money in connection with the case. How can voters expect you to be the state’s top law enforcement official, take over the investigation of his alleged wrongdoings, and work as their chief consumer advocate?”

Ugly stuff that, but DeLeo knows that he’s also got to tend to his own garden, and in this case the garden is crowded with a bunch of hothouse flowers who see themselves as the next top cop.

Rogers Four weigh in

The four DeLeo bashers in the House who held up legislative business last week – Reps. Lida Harkins, rapidly fashioning herself into a sort of opposition leader, Tom Stanley, Matthew Patrick, and Bill Greene – didn’t get much outright backing among colleagues, even those disgruntled with layoffs and the legislative calendar and the reams of incumbency-jeopardizing votes they’ve taken since January. Many seemed intent on keeping favor with DeLeo in an effort to move small-bore local bills, which enjoy increased political currency in the tight economic environment.

The Rogers Four, so named because of their fealty to Rep. John Rogers in his battle against DeLeo for the speakership last January, relented on Thursday, allowing a $42 million appropriations bill for homeless shelters and $100,000 for a Weymouth police officer killed in the line of duty to pass. The speaker gave a little bit of ground, too, permitting the House to read in an order, which is going absolutely nowhere, calling for an airing of the House’s internal finances.

What the Rogers Four really accomplished was fastening continued public scrutiny on the $378,000 the House has paid out so far to an outside law firm reportedly chosen by former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi to represent the House in federal prosecutors’ investigation into what happened in the House when DiMasi was, allegedly, rigging bids and pocketing kickbacks and, perhaps most villainously, not setting his staffers up with jobs when he knew he was on his way out the door.

Oh, yes, there’s the budget...
In the real world, next year’s budget picture came into a little better focus, and it is less attractive than the morning after the Unofficial State House Christmas/Holiday/Solstice Party. The Department of Revenue projected that fiscal 2011 tax revenues would climb 1.7 percent to 3.9 percent over this year’s projected intake, to between $18.531 billion and $19.342 billion, modest gains and coming on the heels of this fiscal year, which has been low-lit by a $5.1 billion problem that equals close to 20 percent of the operating plan.

Employment recovery is expected to lag behind the rest of the country, whose jobless rate is higher than the Commonwealth’s, and may not return to the levels seen prior to the latest recession until 2015, one analyst said.

That means sustained spending cuts next year, and the uncertainty around the remaining six months of this fiscal year has lawmakers and Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget aides defending themselves against charges that they haven’t done enough on the fly to balance the current budget. If those accusations prove true, there will be deeper cuts, and more layoffs, between now and July.

… and a touch about education
Meantime, House bosses gave the rank and file during an unusual caucus Wednesday a preview of the education bill they’ll likely vote on the first full week of January. It’s a bit of a scaled-back version of the rewrite of Patrick’s proposal that the Senate passed last month, and will likely not include the changes to the current system the state uses to reimburse public school districts for students who leave to go to charter schools. The Senate wants to send 100 percent reimbursement the first year, then 25 percent for five years thereafter, an aggregate 225 percent – as opposed to today’s model, which gives 200 percent in 100, 60, then 40 percent allotments. House members appear amenable to not saving the world in one fell swoop. That’s what next term is for.
Wednesday’s caucus was unusual because it was one of those times the membership held the leadership accountable. This doesn’t happen a heck of a lot (see DiMasi, Salvatore F.), but a vocal enough minority forced DeLeo’s hand in explaining why he couldn’t give more details about the $378,000. By most accounts, he delivered, earning satisfaction from some usually dissatisfied members. One caucus attendee, sympathetic to DeLeo, acknowledged “high stakes. He had to deliver, and I think he did.”

It was a needed victory for DeLeo, who’s been putting out fires in a lot of different places, with more conflagrations to come. See DiMasi, Salvatore F.