State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Lounging

The Massachusetts State House.

Emotionally drained by last week’s marathon bombings, House lawmakers raced through budget week, shortening it to a three-day affair that averaged out to about a billion dollars in spending for every hour in session. 

The only thing left to do by Friday was figure out where that money was going.

It was an impressive display of efficiency and trust or acquiescence, depending on your vantage point. House lawmakers sprinted through deliberations over how to best allocate $ 33.8 billion, agreeing to bump up the bottom line closer to $ 34 billion between Monday and Wednesday night.

After 37 hours in session – many spent in idle chatter awaiting a thumb’s up or down on legislators’ preferred earmarks, policy goals and spending priorities from lawmakers debating in an adjoining lounge – Democrats uniformly supported the budget put before them by Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey.

The Haverhill Democrat defended the bill as “fiscally responsible,” making investments in local aid and higher education to avoid UMass tuition and fee hikes, while holding the line on other spending for programs such as pre-kindergarten until proper oversight can be demonstrated.

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House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Dempsey have turned budgeting efficiency into an art in recent years, transforming what used to be a four- or five-day process into a three-day exercise at best. Even a late start Wednesday so that members could attend a memorial for slain M.I.T. police office Sean Collier in Cambridge couldn’t slow down the feverish pace of decision-making in the lounge.

So intent on finishing by Wednesday night, DeLeo even appealed to an authority higher than any lawmaker’s professed devotion to education, social justice or public safety. 

“I am not providing dinner tomorrow night,” DeLeo said around 8 p.m. on Wednesday, a light-hearted caution against stalling delivered, incidentally, not long after lawmakers put the kibosh on Munchy Ways and Buddafingers. Lawmakers had almost nothing to say about the issue in the years leading up to last November’s voter approval of a medical marijuana law, but the House this week slammed the door on edible, candy-like med marijuana products. 

That’s not to say lawmakers weren’t included in the process, following the now traditional pilgrimage to Room 348 – the lounge – to pitch their amendments out of listening range for the general public. Large, bundled revisions arrived on the floor for approval, some adding tens of millions in spending to the final document.

Republicans voted in a bloc against the budget – a protest of the $ 265 million in new taxes tapped to balance the transportation spending side of the ledger. The MassGOP singled out for hypocrisy the 25 Democrats who voted for the budget but against the House’s $ 500 million tax hike plan, a salient knock on some Dems but probably not those who voted against the tax package because it was too small.

Though few and far between, serious debates on the floor did erupt from time to time over the course of the week. Efforts to lower the sales and income taxes to 5 percent over five years – dubbed the 5-5-5 plan, were shot down by Democrats, as was Rep. James Miceli’s overture to debate reinstatement of the death penalty colored by last week’s bombings and the murder of Collier.

“After we witnessed all of that carnage last week, who could be against a bill like this?” Miceli asked. The answer: a 119-38 vote to study the issue further.

Republicans and Democrats also sparred, sometimes emotionally, over welfare fraud and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, but covered little new ground. “I thought the rules prevented personal attacks,” Rep. Marc Lombardo opined, after raising concerns about state spending association with illegal immigration and being characterized by some colleagues as an uncaring conservative bent on denying newcomers access to schooling.

Disenchanted by the Democratic abandonment of the “reform before revenue” mantra of recent years, all 29 House Republicans voted against the budget, not just a small bloc of dogmatic fiscal conservatives that voted no last year. 

“House Republicans continue to demonstrate our strong opposition to fiscal irresponsibility and our ongoing advocacy for the elimination of waste, fraud and abuse in state government,” Minority Leader Brad Jones said.

The budget debate, in some small ways, offered a sense of comfort in the slow return to a new normalcy around the capitol after the deadly marathon bombings. As victims were laid to rest and other released by hospitals, new details emerged about the terror plot, as well as concerns about the post-9-11 sharing of information between law enforcement agencies.

Democratic Senate candidates Stephen Lynch and Edward Markey also returned to the debate stage, trading their sharpest elbows yet over commitments to homeland security a week out from next Tuesday’s primary.

The youngest bombing suspect – 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – was charged with using weapons of mass destruction and transferred from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to a prison hospital in Devens with questions still lingering about the plans he and his brother may have had to continue their spree of havoc in Times Square, and how the two financed their bomb-making plot.

The Patrick administration fumbled through its release of details that deceased suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his family, as well as his parents, received public welfare benefits, including food stamps, off and on through at least 2012. 

After confirming the benefits, health officials suggested they might have broken the law by violating a beneficiary’s privacy, only to turn around and claim a “public interest” in releasing more detailed information on the type and duration of the public assistance.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has plenty on her plate with Tsarnaev, but not too much to stop her from unloading a raft of new bribery charges against former Probation Commission John O’Brien in connection to an alleged patronage hiring scandal at the agency in which job applicants recommended by lawmakers were hired or promoted to curry favor under the Dome.

Loaded with intrigue, but seeming to lack a smoking gun to showcase any quid pro quo between O’Brien and lawmakers, some legal experts began to openly wonder whether Ortiz had gone too far out on the ledge by charging bribery.

The probation investigation has kept lawmakers on edge for years wondering whether they might become targets. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray took the new indictment as a chance to once again proclaim their innocence. 

“I never gave or received any benefits from those recommendations, and I never traded jobs for votes. There is no one who could honestly say otherwise,” DeLeo said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Post-bombing, the House returns to work to pass a $ 34 billion budget, while Ortiz rolls a major public corruption case onto the table while simultaneously prosecuting an accused terrorist.

South End Patch