By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — It was a minor gaffe that created a photo opportunity worth capturing as Gov. Deval Patrick and the heads of the House and Senate prepare for one final tango before Patrick, and most likely Senate President Therese Murray, exit stage left.
After making his way down the red carpet and into the House, shaking hands as lawmakers greeted him with a standing ovation, Patrick arrived on the rostrum to deliver his final State of the Commonwealth address. He was just a few minutes early.
“Don’t engage in conversation. We’ve gathered you here today to let you know we’re a little before primetime,” Murray said, stepping to the microphone.
Patrick, Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo proceeded to whisper into each other’s ears, all laughs and smiles as they waited for the light on the live TV cameras to turn red. Had people known then that Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty could dance like Vanilla Ice, it might have been a good opportunity for him to entertain the audience.
The question is how long those good feelings will last. There are six months before the Legislature calls it quits to focus exclusively on their own re-elections, and six months before Patrick’s window for major legislative victories closes for good. Just don’t use the L-word around Patrick quite yet. He says he’s not ready to talk legacy, although he devoted a good chunk of his speech to his accomplishments.
Unlike his 2013 speech, to the delight of many lawmakers, Patrick’s 30-minute address did not include any challenges that lawmakers weren’t ready to tackle on their own.
Instead, he outlined a final year where he may play the role of mediator-in-chief. Patrick urged cities and town to use the tools he has already put in place to make permitting simpler and hold the line on property taxes. He asked company owners to take advantage of a rebounding economy and “hire somebody.” And he asked labor and business to partner for a minimum wage increase and unemployment insurance reform.
“I have a number in my head, yeah, but this is a negotiation,” Patrick would say the next day about the minimum wage. “I think, more than anything, the role I want to play is to help the parties get to a good number.”
And that’s fine by most Democrats, who left the State House on Tuesday night relieved that the leader of their party had not spotted them again, in an election year no less, with some new call to show their political courage and raise taxes to invest in his priorities like early education.
“We’re up for re-election. It’s in our best interest to work with this guy and get some things done, not only for his legacy but for our own re-election and for the Commonwealth,” House Majority Leader Ron Mariano said after.
That’s not to say they’re going to work together on everything. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, in an annual speech of his own to House members on Wednesday, quickly played the no-new-taxes-or-fees card, taking both off the table for the budget Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey will produce in three short months.
Say good-bye to the idea of taxing candy and soda sales. DeLeo did say the House would vote to raise the minimum wage, but the expectation is that the number in DeLeo’s mind is lower that the Senate’s $11 an hour and contingent on unspecified UI reforms that could either smooth a deal with business or prompt a full revolt from labor.
The governor’s speech preceded President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which if you were watching NBC’s coverage, featured plenty of airtime for Massachusetts’s new Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who had a seat on the aisle, and a hot-mic greeting between the president and Secretary of State John Kerry.
“John Kerry. Thanks for making it, man. You’ve been busy,” the president said.
Patrick focused in his speech on accomplishments of his administration and the need to forge lasting partnerships between government and the private sector. The emphasis overshadowed what amounted to a 148-word section in his prepared remarks under the header of “Effective Government.”
This is where Patrick chose to address the scandal-plagued Department of Children and Families and the glitchy Health Connector website that continues to create headaches for those seeking to sign up for health insurance in the face of state and now federal requirements.
“Time after time, when problems arise, we have kept our wits about us, gathered the facts soberly and thoughtfully, and stepped up to find solutions, not just fault. Now, as in the past, we will do it again,” Patrick said, a follow-up to his Monday morning press conference when he spoke about the areas of most concern to him regarding DCF that he has directed the third-party Child Welfare League of America to investigate.
The House wasted little time in delivering to Patrick one of his prime-time requests: a transportation bond bill, delayed a week like Patrick’s speech by snow, authorizing hundreds of public works projects. Meanwhile in the Senate, leaders struggled to find anything to do when they met, most priorities still in the development stage.
The bottom line on the $12.7 billion borrowing bill was increased by more than $300 million on the floor as House Democratic leaders huddled to sift through hundreds of amendments earmarking funds for pet projects in lawmaker’s district, stamping some approved and casting others to the recycling bin.
Embedded in the bill, after quiet prodding from former Gov. William Weld of all people, was a clause renaming Boston’s South Station after former Gov. Michael Dukakis. What at first seemed like a thoughtful nod to the public-transit minded former governor quickly took on the air of something not very well thought out, and unlikely to catch on in the public lexicon.
One might have thought House leaders would have called Dukakis before starting to rename a major transportation hub after him. They didn’t. And the Duke, himself, reportedly has mixed feelings about Duke Station given his unfulfilled dream of making it just another stop on a north-south rail link through Boston.
In the Department of Comings and Goings, Norfolk Republican Shawn Dooley joined the House this week as O’Flaherty said goodbye with a no-apologies farewell speech that revealed, among other things, his claim of six-pack abs and aptitude for stopping to collaborate and listen.
GOP businessman Mike Heffernan also officially became the first Republican candidate to enter the race for treasurer – or for secretary of state, auditor or attorney general – while Sen. Barry Finegold made the same leap on the other side of the primary.
The week ended with white smoke rising in 20 communities green-lighted by the Department of Public Health for medical marijuana dispensaries, and politicians struggling to reconcile their opposition to the death penalty with their reluctance to characterize as right or wrong U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to seek a death sentence for marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
For Gov. Patrick, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and many others, the hedging response went something like this: “I support Holder’s decision.”
At first pass, Democrat Don Berwick, who is running for governor, was one of the only public figures whose position on the death penalty wasn’t skewed by the local circumstances: “There is no place for the death penalty in our nation’s justice system,” he said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Patrick and Speaker DeLeo set stage for 2014 budget and minimum wage debates.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I can really dance. I don’t mean around an issue. I mean like Vanilla Ice, like dance.” – Eugene O’Flaherty