Rick Holmes: Subplots lost in Beacon Hill's legislative frenzy

Rick Holmes

The Massachusetts Legislature ended its session in a typical legislative frenzy.

Beacon Hill lawmakers spend the first year of each two-year session pondering issues facing the state, and most of the second year in hearings and closed-door meetings. Then, as their self-imposed July 31 deadline approaches, they start feverishly pasting together legislation like college students with overdue term papers.

The homework the Legislature managed to slip under the professor's door before adjourning at 1:30 a.m. Friday covered glacial warming, gay marriage, healthcare cost-containment, early childhood education and a billion-dollar bailout of the Mass. Pike. They also went on a borrowing binge, approving billions of dollars in bond issues for transportation, the environment, and public buildings, not to mention earmarks for local projects from Pittsfield to Provincetown.

Oh, and they also found time to legalize alcohol on golf courses, outlaw the rental of pets and name Fall River's Rolling Rock the state's "official glacial rock."

Whether by coincidence or design, few of these achievements were noticed by the general public. The vote to repeal a 1913 law that had been a barrier for same-sex couples from other states tying the knot in Massachusetts got some media play, but then Manny Ramirez was traded, and the sideshow under the Golden Dome was all but forgotten.

That's too bad, because there were several interesting subplots lost in the shuffle.

One little-examined subplot involves Gov. Deval Patrick, who has just survived his first legislative session.

After some rookie mistakes and a big defeat on casinos, Patrick quietly developed a working relationship with Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Sal DiMasi that has produced an impressive stack of legislation. Patrick hit more singles and doubles than home runs, and few of his achievements made much of an impression on voters who don't get fired up by bond issues and economic development incentives.

But Patrick didn't make many errors, either. There were no bruising fights this week, no competing press conferences, just a succession of ceremonial bill-signings. This can be interpreted two ways: Either he has learned how to get his way on Beacon Hill without bruises or bluster, or he's letting Murray and DiMasi call the shots while he concentrates on landing a job in the Obama administration.

A second subplot involved the succession drama that has hung over the House for more than a year. Speaker DiMasi keeps saying he plans to hold on to his job, but the whispers that he'd like to bail out - or be forced out by a steady drip of ethics allegations - haven't gone away.

His would-be successors, Majority Leader John Rogers of Norwood and Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, chairman of the powerful Ways & Means Committee, have been jockeying for position and collecting pledges of support for a year, despite DiMasi's entreaties to cut it out. The intrigue surfaced again this week, when an appropriation for an obscure data center in Springfield suddenly developed into a battle between the Rogers and DeLeo forces, prompting DiMasi to again declare himself still alive and still the speaker.

This subplot deserves attention because House Speaker is at least the second most powerful position in state government - and maybe the most powerful. The voters have no say in who gets that power, but they should. Voters should also care whether their tax money is being spent to buy votes in the speaker's race. The Globe this week reported talk among members of "DeLeo Dollars" - goodies that come from Ways & Means to members who have enlisted in the chairman's cause.

I've asked several reps who Patrick would prefer as the next speaker, and not only do they not know, they sound surprised at the question. But if Patrick really wants to be king of Beacon Hill, shouldn't he want an ally in the speaker's chair? DiMasi's opposition scuttled two of Patrick's priorities this session, casino gambling and property tax relief. Wouldn't a fully engaged governor be building his own power base in the House?

The third subplot will come to a climax on Nov. 4, when voters consider Question 1: the repeal of the state income tax. Legislators are always better at spending money than raising it, which has much to do with this session's borrowing binge. What with gas and food prices rising and the economy sinking, they were even less likely to raise anyone's taxes.

With a question on the ballot that would cause 40 percent of state revenues to disappear overnight, there was even more reason to tread carefully. Between now and November, elected officials will be telling anyone who'll listen about the multiple disasters that will befall the citizenry should Question 1 pass.

That may not be enough. Given the cavalier attitude the Legislature has displayed toward previous voter mandates on publicly-funded elections and the income tax rollback, some voters figure it doesn't matter what they say. So why not send a message to the politicians about corrupt government and wasteful spending?

Voters are constantly reminded of such waste. Now that it's summer, they see police standing around construction sites every day with their hands in their pockets, raking in the overtime. The Big Dig's price tag now stands at $22 billion, and you don't have to drive on it to feel its pinch - just open your wallet at the nearest tollbooth.

Then there's Albert Arroyo, the Boston fire inspector seeking a permanent disability pension for an injury no one saw, who now struts his stuff on YouTube in a Marlborough bodybuilding competition. He's the new poster child for the fraud and abuse in the state pension system voters assume is rampant.

But when Patrick proposed modest reforms in the police details system, lawmakers scurried away at the first sign of uniformed lobbyists at their doors, followed quickly by Patrick. Rather than propose reforms the state has been hungry for since Big Dig costs first exploded, the Legislature this week simply gave the Pike a stronger line of credit. The Arroyo scandal should have been greeted with solemn pledges to reform the state pension system once and for all, but the politicians were silent.

Question 1 is less about dollars and cents than about public cynicism. For all the legislation adopted these last few weeks, the Beacon Hill gang did very little to reduce that cynicism.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.