State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Log Flotilla

Massachusetts State House

Every candidate needs a closing sales pitch, and Gabriel Gomez came up with one that sounds a bit like the fine print on the bottom of a Macy’s receipt: Take me home, try me on, return me in 17 months if you’d like a different color.

The Republican businessman from Cohasset, who incidentally doesn’t much like talking about his business, tried out the pitch in his final debate earlier this week against Congressman Edward Markey.

“You’ve had 37 years in D.C. to get these important things done,” Gomez said. “Give me 17 months, and I will keep my word, and I will do what I say.”

Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to take him up on that offer, but late polling showed Markey extending his lead over Gomez among likely voters, with one poll from UMass Lowell declaring the Malden Democrat ahead by as many 20 points. Few believe the margin will be that large, and it’s still unclear whether the probationary term would count against Gomez’s self-imposed term limit pledge should he manage to derail Markey.

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While the U.S. Senate race entered its final stages, the somewhat dormant Legislature sprang to life this week, advancing bills to keep government running while budget negotiations continue, to align the state’s health care system with the Affordable Care Act and to keep ongoing IT and capital maintenance projects funded and on track.

Still on hold, however, are the annual state budget and an accompanying tax bill intended to finance transportation that will go to the wire with just nine days left in the fiscal year.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer compared the build-up of major tax and spending bills to a “log flotilla,” noting everything can flow when one log is pulled out, but he gave little clue as to when and who would do the pulling, nor a description of the troublesome log.

Addressing Sen. Bruce Tarr’s question on the status of negotiations, Brewer said, “I would like to tell the minority leader a lot, but it is in conference, so I really can’t tell him a lot of the machinations.”

The machinery – a little rusty, but starting to warm up – had no problem spitting out a $ 4 billion interim spending measure filed this week by Gov. Deval Patrick and whisked through the Legislature in one day that will keep the money flowing after July 1, assuming no budget will in place for the start of the fiscal year. 

This isn’t Washington, after all. No threat of a government shutdown here.

If even an agreement can be reached quickly, starting fiscal 2014 without a budget in place seems all but a certainty at this point given the governor’s plans to spend the next week in San Francisco with his oldest daughter and new grandson. His staff will also probably want to use the 10 days they are given to review any bills before deciding on vetoes.

Senate President Therese Murray – with Brewer, Jennifer Flanagan and Michael Barrett at her side – dropped her anticipated welfare reform bill onto the work-in-progress pile, detailing a proposal heavy on putting poor people back to work with enough fraud prevention measures to win over Republicans and conservative Democrats.

“The system has been stagnant for a long time and we want to shake up the system,” Murray said at a press conference. Since 1995 to be exact. Because that’s when a younger Therese Murray just three years into her Senate career helped write the last major overhaul of the welfare in the system.

Murray laughed and said, “No,” when asked if she considered this bill to bring her career full circle. Term limited, Murray has just another year and half in the president’s office, at which point she’ll have to make a decision on her political career. But more on that later.

For now, Murray said she learned just last September that former Gov. Mitt Romney had ended an integral component of her 1995 welfare to work reform. The new bill would recreate the “full employment program” to help place welfare recipients in full-time jobs to get them off public assistance.

Still on the topic of Romney, the former Republican governor was also responsible for ending the practice of requiring photo identification on electronic welfare benefit cards, a measure once again championed by House and Senate Republicans and included in both the House and Senate reform plans.

Murray had predicted that the photo ID requirement would be the major point of contention within the Democratic caucus, and she was right. Sen. Jamie Eldridge argued that seniors and the disabled would find the requirement to be a burden because they often rely on others to buy their groceries or pick up prescriptions, but Sen. Stephen Brewer said he had faith in the administration to craft “compassionate” regulations to adjust for those situations.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, doesn’t much like the idea of photo IDs either, but in her attempt to delay the implementation of the reform she couched her criticism in terms that just as easily could have come from the mouths of any of the four Republicans on the floor.

Sometimes those defrauding the welfare system aren’t the only ones wasting taxpayer dollars, she said. “Sometimes we are perpetrators of waste,” she said during debate. Chang-Diaz’s proposal to let the auditor do a cost-benefit analysis of the photo ID requirement failed. The overall bill sailed through, 37-1, with Chang-Diaz dissenting.

Where welfare reform goes from here is anyone’s guess. While the Senate would prefer the House take up its bill sooner rather than later, House Democratic leaders decided to tack a small number of reforms into a mid-year spending bill knowing full-well Murray’s plans to pass welfare reform on Thursday.

Predictably, the Senate ignored the House welfare provisions in the $ 98 million supplemental budget bill and pitched it right back into Speaker Robert DeLeo’s court.

Almost an afterthought for the week but a development that will be revisited with increasing interest after this election cycle, former Obama health official Donald Berwick officially entered the 2014 gubernatorial race with a press release. 

Which brings us back to Murray. Asked whether she might run for governor, the Plymouth Democrat said this: “There have been many people who asked me too, but I haven’t made any decisions yet.” Take it for what it’s worth.

STORY OF THE WEEK: With nine days left in the fiscal year, there’s an annual budget, a supplemental budget and an interim budget. And then there’s welfare reform. Only one is finished.

South End Patch