By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE: There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week.
Two prominent Democrats, Gov. Deval Patrick and Phil Johnston, former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, both said they are in favor of changing, for the third time in just nine years, the current law that dictates the procedure for filling the U.S. Senate seat of Sen. John Kerry. It is no secret that Kerry is being considered by Obama as the next Secretary of State or Defense.
Current law leaves the seat temporarily vacant and provides for a special election to be held within 145 to 160 days. Johnston and Patrick ignited a debate on the wisdom of a move to change this back to the old law that would give the governor the power to name a replacement who would serve out the remainder of the original senator's term until the next regular election.
Patrick said, "I would prefer that a (Massachusetts) governor, like most governors or many governors, gets to appoint to fill a vacancy until the end of that term because frankly I think we have a certain amount of election fatigue and it's expensive ... but I don't have any appetite to advocate for that (and) I don't think the Legislature has any appetite ... (but) if it came to me I'd sign it."
Johnson noted, "I think that would be preferable.
Here's the rocky history of the law:
Prior to 2004, the law provided that when a U.S. Senate seat becomes vacant, the governor had the sole power to name a replacement until the next regular election.
That worked well for Democrats in 1961, the last time a Bay State U.S. Senate seat became vacant when then-Sen. John Kennedy was elected to the presidency.
Democratic Gov. Foster Furcolo, at the behest of President-elect Kennedy, appointed Benjamin Smith, a close Kennedy family ally, to "keep the seat warm" until the election in 1962, at which time the president's then 29-year-old brother Ted would be 30, the minimum age required to be elected to the Senate. The plan worked and Ted Kennedy won the 1962 election and remained in the Senate until his death in 2009.
Fast forward to the summer of 2004, when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was governor. Democrats feared that Romney would have the opportunity to appoint a Republican to fill Sen. John Kerry's seat until 2008 if Kerry won the 2004 November presidential election. So the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a new law taking away the governor's appointment power and instead leaving the seat temporarily vacant and providing for a special election for the seat to be held within 145 to 160 days. The change was supported overwhelmingly by all but seven of the House Democratic representatives and senators and opposed by all Republicans. Romney vetoed the law but the Legislature overrode his veto.
In the end, of course, Kerry lost to former President George W. Bush and the Senate seat never became vacant.
The 2004 law remained on the books until 2009, when shortly before his death, Kennedy urged state lawmakers to approve a proposal that would amend the 2004 statute when he passed away and his seat became vacant.
The Legislature granted Kennedy's wish and approved the measure that gave Patrick what it had taken away from Romney in 2004 -- the power to appoint a temporary short-term replacement for the vacant seat until the winner of a special election is sworn into office.
Everyone on Beacon Hill knew that the Democrats were changing the law again because they knew that Patrick would appoint a Democrat to the seat and maintain the Democrat's important 60-vote super majority in the U.S. Senate. This would give the Democrats the power to put a stop to any filibuster and other delaying techniques by the Republicans. This essentially meant that the Democrats could pass any legislation they want as long as all 60 Democrats went along. And then if all went according to plan, a Democrat would be elected in the special election in the bluest of blue states.
Half of the plan worked. Patrick appointed former Kennedy aide and Democratic loyalist Paul Kirk to the Senate. The other half failed. Republican Scott Brown pulled an upset and beat Attorney General Martha Coakley to become U.S. Senator. A few weeks ago, Brown lost the seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Fast forward to today when there is talk about changing the law back to the one that allowed the governor to appoint a replacement to serve until the next regular election.
This, of course, would give Patrick the unilateral power to appoint the successor, undoubtedly a Democratic loyalist who would likely in 2014 run to be elected to the office or at least hold the seat warm up until the 2014 election.
House Republican Minority Leader Bradley Jones opposes the change. "Any such move to change this law at this point in the game could accurately be seen as corrupt," Jones said. "To imagine that Gov. Patrick and state Democrats would change the law midterm, thus denying Massachusetts voters from being able to exercise their constitutional right to vote, is unfathomable."
Senate GOP Minority Leader Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) weighed in saying, "To suggest that we should take away the right to vote for a new United States senator to save money or to alleviate alleged voter fatigue is offensive to the very essence of our democracy ... It is wrong for Beacon Hill to try to perpetuate the shell game of changing the rules every few years."
Perhaps the harshest criticism came from state Republican Party spokesman Tim Buckley. "While changing the law for a fourth time to suit the needs of the Democrats would be a blatant manipulation of state law for political gain, it is not wise to put anything past the Democrats, Buckley said. "After all, they are the party responsible for 23 years of criminal House speakers, so anything is possible."
Seth Gitell, spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo told Beacon Hill Roll Call, "It is not on the radar (screen) at this time."
Senate President Therese Murray's spokesman David Falcone said in an email, "We're not changing it."
Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, the chairman of the Election Laws Committee that would hold a hearing on any such bill, made it clear that he favors the existing law.
Here's a review of how local senators and representatives voted on the 2004 and 2009 laws.
ALSO ON BEACON HILL:
PAY RAISES FOR MORE THAN 400 STATEHOUSE STAFF: House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray both handed out pay raises to 460-plus Statehouse employees.
DeLeo gave 460 legislative aides and other House staffers an increase totaling $764,000 while Murray gave only some of her own aides and staffers a 3 percent raise.
According to DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell, House staffers, the majority of whom earn between $34,000 and $42,000 annually, have not received a pay adjustment in more than four years. He notes the increases are only 2.16 percent of the overall House budget, and no additional money will be needed to fund them. Gitell said, "This cost-of-living adjustment is possible because the House has cut its payroll almost 10 percent since 2009 and the number of full-time employees has decreased from 546 to 460."
Speaker DeLeo added, "A lot of these folks are having difficulty that I hear from them and the reps paying their own bills now. So I consider it something we needed to do so they could continue to exist themselves."
Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation commented, "I'm sure some staffers deserve a raise, but did anyone notice that the state budget is in deficit and the federal crisis is going to make things worse?"
The exact numbers for Murray's hikes were not readily available. Murray spokesman David Falcone said, "The Senate President gave some of her staffers a 3 percent raise after performance evaluations. These staffers work very hard and many of them have gone several years without a pay increase."
The hikes come at a time when state revenues are not meeting expectations and there are whispers of possible mid-year budget cuts and tax hikes. Revelation of the hikes also coincided with the protests of a group of human service workers who were outside Patrick's office demanding he release $20 million in pay raises for some 29,000 human service workers. According to The Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers, these workers make an average of $12 an hour and haven't received a pay raise in five years. The Council says the funds would increase salaries by about 2 percent -- an approximate increase for workers of about $13 per week or 33 cents per hour. "These low-paid workers serving people with disabilities, our elderly residents, veterans and homeless individuals feel the Patrick-Murray administration's action to indefinitely delay this promised 2 percent increase is heartless and lacks an appreciation for this workforce's daily sacrifices on behalf of all of us," said Council President Michael Weekes.
The Patrick Administration refutes the charge that the governor has frozen the account. "We haven't frozen any salary reserve," Patrick said. "We have all kinds of steps we've taken in anticipation of potential budget cuts because revenue has slowed down but we haven't made any final decisions. I understand the sensitivity about those issues and the sensitivity of some of the folks who are here."
The governor does not have any control over the pay hikes given by DeLeo and Murray.
OFF TO A STUDY
Over the past few weeks, committees recommended that many bills be shipped off to a "study committee," where measures are never actually studied and are essentially defeated. NURSING HOME RESIDENTS (S 286): Requires nursing homes and assisted living facilities to conduct criminal background checks of all potential residents.
TAX DEDUCTION FOR HOME HEATING (H 2519): Allows qualified homeowners and renters to annually deduct on their tax return up to $1,000 of the cost of home heating oil, natural gas or propane deduction. The deductions would apply to single persons if earning less than $50,000 and joint filers earning less than $75,000.
DEDUCT STUDENT LOANS (H 2548): Allows taxpayers to annually deduct up to $1,000 in student loan principal payments. Current law allows taxpayers to deduct only the interest paid on the loan.