Recap and analysis of the week in state government
By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 7, 2014.... The words wafting from the mouths of leaders on Beacon Hill tell one story: a focus on creating jobs, improving education and addressing violence. The daily headlines tell another.
That disconnect was on full display this week as the House tried, perhaps in vain, to move past a dark chapter in its history while Gov. Deval Patrick found himself doing more damage control, this time involving the Health Connector and its deeply flawed consumer website.
There's a reason no one has been expelled from the House in nearly a century, and it's not because lawmakers don't find themselves in hot water from time to time. As Rep. Garrett Bradley accurately noted, most resign on their own accord if their transgressions reach the point of arrest, prosecution and incarceration.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo had hoped former Rep. Carlos Henriquez, who is currently serving six month in jail for an assault and battery conviction on a former girlfriend, would so the same. But he didn't. He fought it until the end, even though he knew what was coming.
"When the train is bearing down on you, it doesn't matter if the light is red or green," Henriquez said, during his final speech from the House floor.
Capping a three-week melodrama of handcuffed visits to the State House, secret deliberations and a recommendation from the Ethics Committee for the harshest possible penalty, Henriquez was voted out of office 146-5 by his fellow House members.
With the public gallery packed for his appearance in the House, Henriquez didn't ask his fellow members for leniency or for a lesser sanction. He simply tried to defend his reputation and argue his innocence, a counter to the jury conviction that landed him in jail and the photographs of bruises on the young woman who accused him of assault that were left in the Members' Lounge for lawmakers to sift through before the vote.
Rep. Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and one of Henriquez's closest friends in the House, tried to reduce his punishment to a censure. He questioned the whether the rule used to expel Henriquez actually applied, and argued that voters should decide his political fate, not lawmakers. But even Holmes, and many of the nine other Democrats who also voted against expulsion, said they wished he had resigned and not put them in that position.
House leaders had informed members prior to Thursday to be ready to debate a bill outlining a new system to repair underground gas leaks, but by the time the chamber had finished expelling Henriquez no one was much in the mood - except for maybe Rep. Lori Ehrlich - for that conversation.
DeLeo did not meet with the media, but issued a statement that said both nothing and everything about how members were feeling. They just wanted to talk about something, anything other than Henriquez. And they're crossing their fingers that Henriquez won't actually run for and win the seat he was just kicked out of and force them to make another decision whether to accept him back into the flock.
"With that vote completed, the House will now move forward to address the budget, gun safety, domestic violence and other important legislative matters," DeLeo said.
The challenge now facing the speaker is making some decisions on what he wants to do about guns, the minimum wage, unemployment reform and domestic violence. Concrete proposal have been in short supply.
One semi-breakthrough came on the gun violence front, with the speaker's task force finally issuing its set of recommendations - 44 in all - ranging from bringing the state into compliance with a federal database law to giving police chiefs the ability to determine the "suitability" for someone seeking a firearm identification.
DeLeo predicted "a little bit more momentum" behind gun law reforms this session. And that may be true. But after more than a year of waiting for his task force to produce its report and the urgency for action after the Sandy Hook school shootings a fading memory, it's hard not to think the gun bill will be added to the pile of issues that will test the Legislature's July 31 deadline.
Patrick's week followed what is becoming a familiar pattern - weekend crisis planning meetings with senior staff and officials followed by press conference to roll out a new action plan.
First, he did it to address the crisis at the Department of Children and Families. This week was about the Connector. Next week? Well, Patrick and First Lady Diane Patrick are spending this weekend in Switzerland.
Patrick announced on Thursday that he was bringing in Sarah Iselin, a Blue Cross Blue Shield executive and former administration health care policy official, to run point on the effort to fix the state's troubled health insurance exchange site. He has also hired a company called Optum to work with the current vendor CGI to repair the faulty IT project, which was described a "fixable."
Patrick laid most of the blame for the website debacle on CGI, who the administration trusted and gave extra time to build a website that could help determine eligibility and enroll thousands of residents in new health plans only to learn around Thanksgiving that it's functionality was in worse shape than anyone imagined.
"I also want to assure you that we're not going to let anyone slip through the cracks," Patrick said.
Three months after President Obama came to Boston to defend his Affordable Care Act in the face of technical challenges that threatened to derail the enrollment process for millions of Americans, the shoe is now on the other foot. Instead of Massachusetts being held up as the model to follow and the reason to have faith that health reform can work, Patrick is now pointing to the feds and how they were able to salvage their seemingly hopeless website for inspiration.
It is under these clouds that the races for governor, attorney general and even secretary of state, to a lesser degree, are starting to warm up. If you're Attorney General Martha Coakley, you're probably pretty happy with how the week went. And if you're Secretary of State William Galvin, you now have a GOP challenger - Malden City Councilor At Large David D'Arcangelo.
Heading into the start of Democratic caucus season, a new poll showed Coakley trouncing her primary opponents, holding a 45-point lead on her closest competitor Treasurer Steven Grossman. She can also lay claim to the mantle of the only Democrat running ahead of Republican Charlie Baker in a head-to-head matchup. If you're a Democrat, you're hoping the current version of Coakley holds up and she doesn't revert to 2009-2010 form.
Meanwhile, Rep. Hank Naughton had to read about how he's trailing in third place in the race for attorney general behind Warren Tolman and Maura Healey, with just 2 percent support. That's after posting a disappointing January fundraising haul of less than $3,000.
Venture capitalist Jeffrey McCormick formally jumped into the race for governor, generating more than your typical buzz for someone running as an independent, but the question remains whether he will be serious or spoiler? McCormick offers what he hopes can be an alternative to the better known party candidates, bringing the type of business background that worked for Mitt Romney and an ability to spend enough personal dough on his race to maybe gain some traction where other independents - i.e. Tim Cahill - have failed.
In the midst of all this drama, the Senate this week rather quietly put its head down and passed legislation reforming unemployment insurance.
The bill would freeze rates for employers and reward companies with stable workforces, while penalizing those with higher employee turnover. Business groups were less than thrilled with the end product, though, as some said it did not go far enough to offset the cost of the expected minimum wage hike. Senate President Therese Murray, with the appreciation of labor, refused to scale back benefits to bring them in line with other states, pointing to the number of people laid off for the first time in the last recession and the need for a solid safety net.
Yet another ball now in DeLeo's court.
STORY OF THE WEEK: House to Carlos Henriquez: We liked you, but domestic violence we just can't abide.