Steve Baddour, the Mane of the Merrimack, sat in one of the richly appointed back offices of the Senate Ways and Means suites last Wednesday afternoon and looked like a little boy whose big brother has been making sure the other kids don’t steal his ice cream cone.
There was a lot of that going around Wednesday.
Senate budget chief Steven Panagiotakos’s retirement announcement – a surprise to just about everybody except Gov. Deval Patrick, who said he and Pange had been discussing it for months – shook up the Legislature in a way that no indictment-free departure has since Bob Travaglini left three years ago, also without acrimony and at the top of his game. Senators scrambled to one-up each other with depictions of the Lowell Democrat as a sort of Adam Smith-Thomas Aquinas figure, a savvy, steel-spined humanitarian who’s been the perfect complement to the similarly steely spined and humane Senate president, Terry Murray.
Unlike the riotous, steel-cage death match that the House of Representatives often is, the Senate, heinous scandals aside, has been a relatively placid entity since Trav took over way back in 2003. The Pange curtain call is quite a happening for the Upper Chamber – emancipating the prized budget chieftainship, which often leads to destabilizing competition among colleagues and, at the least, a new hand at the committee reins.
As big a story as Scott Brown was nationally, inside the tightly cloistered dynamics of the world’s oldest continuous democracy, Pange is about 38 slots higher on the 40-person depth chart than Brown was.
Brown, who’s a United States senator now, took a lot of weird heat last week for not singlehandedly stopping the federal health care bill. Weird because, in hindsight, people expected Scott Brown to stop this thing by his lonesome, an expectation perhaps encouraged by his inclination in the weeks following The Election to sign his autograph with the appendage “41,” prompting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to note, “This is a man who understands how the Senate operates.” Leader McConnell, said the pundits, welcome to the law of unintended consequences.
While Scott Brown could not stymie the health care bill, that did not prevent all the Scott Brown-wannabes (everyone in politics) from aiming the unwieldy health care argument at each other across the sightlines of the gubernatorial campaign trail. For one brief shining moment there appeared as if the campaign would lapse into a policy debate, laden with substance and bound only by the outward parameters of the relevant.
Enter Candidate Cahill
And then Patrick and GOP frontrunner Charles Baker chuckled off unenrolled Treasurer Timothy Cahill’s newfound outspokenness against both the state and federal health care policies as comically late to the party, at least partially because Cahill held a presser in his office last week where he insisted he was speaking strictly as the state’s chief financial officer, then promptly sent out three or four dozen campaign press releases touting his newly nuanced criticism.
“They’re lying, to put it bluntly,” Cahill said at a Suffolk University Law forum, referring to the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation, the business-backed policy group that concluded the 2006 health law had netted an annual one percent addition to the state budget.
“That last comment is B.S.,” Patrick said to a reporter who asked about Cahill’s recollection of pressing fiscal concerns with the governor two years ago this month.
Cahill aide Michael Travaglini dialed into WRKO a week ago today to confront Baker over the latter’s complaints that Cahill was essentially using the state’s pension system as a recruitment tool for fundraisers. Travaglini, whose brother is the aforementioned Senate president, defended the pension fund as one of the nation’s best, huffing, from his Floridian vacation, “The only place where we’re not recognized for how well we do is in our own state” and calling Baker’s allegations of opaqueness at the agency “disingenuous.”
Finally. After months of standing by while the candidates promenaded along the parapets of high-minded debate, the voters were relieved to find themselves comfortably in the middle of a traditional pants-on-fire contest. Like an old shoe.
The House tiptoes on gambling
While much of the attention has, and will continue to, shift to the ballot, the House is quietly tiptoeing toward the policy issue of the year, which could begin conflagrating next week with the release of DeLeo-backed legislation, and that is whether or not you as a citizen of the Commonwealth, God save it, will be able to proudly stand around a craps table next year or not.
The House wrote off the governor’s casino proposal two years ago, in starkly different economic and internal political climates, and DeLeo’s leadership team has showed their nervous charges how to explain why they switched their votes, and tacked on racetrack slots to boot: It’s the economy, stupid. Murray helped out a bit, cautioning that we might be “in the second year of a 10-year economic morass.” As a reminder of the budget instability, the House passed a $250 million mini-budget to deal with recession-driven increases in demand for Medicaid and indigent legal services.
Still grappling with daddy issues from the DiMasi Era, demons incurred by feelings of neglect and abandonment and potentially downright deception, the House now turns into the crucial stage of sanctioning casinos and slots then pivoting to a budget season that will be laden with ugly cuts and fiscal gimmickry. The do-nothing-Legislature tauntings will, however fleetingly, ring hollow.
DiMasi back at the bar
The former speaker himself was back in court last week, fighting the corruption charges that drove him from office last year. U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf ruled against the defense’s argument that the U.S. attorney’s office had improperly used the grand jury, and refused to dismiss the case, meaning that Sal DiMasi will probably go to trial.