State of flux

Inside the Massachusetts State House, a forecast of political chaos for 2010 promises extreme gridlock
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 11, 2009

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A few weeks ago, the state legislature headed into its winter break with what might be called a flurry of inactivity. The House passed a budget-cutting measure, but the Senate did not. Education and criminal-records reform made it through the Senate, but not the House. And while Governor Deval Patrick publicly cracked the whip, it only emphasized how little power he wields over the legislature.

It's hard to see how the situation will get any easier after the New Year. If anything, the forces against progress figure to become even more powerful, in what some are already predicting will be the most contentious political year the state has seen in decades.

There are tensions, as always, among the loveless triangle of Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray. Insiders say that, though Patrick and Murray are working together better these days, they now both seem at odds with DeLeo.

And not only do divisions exist between the three entities, but also in each of their kitchens. In the House, for instance, some supporters of John Rogers — who lost the succession battle to DeLeo earlier this year — are infuriated by DeLeo's sacking of some of their staffers last week, which they saw as retribution.

Meanwhile, a host of legislators are actively eyeing other offices. Thanks to the gubernatorial campaign of Tim Cahill, the election of Martha Coakley to the Senate, and the retirement of Jim DiNucci, the state treasurer, attorney general, and auditor positions are wide open in 2010.

Lawmakers campaigning for those seats — or for those jobs that will have opened up — will be especially skittish about taking on difficult or controversial votes. For example, some House members and staff tell the Phoenix that criminal-record and sentencing reform may have little chance of passage next year, because too many lawmakers are loath to look weak on criminals.

And don't forget that late January begins the process of forging the next annual budget. With the economy still struggling, and no political will at all for new taxes, Beacon Hill insiders are expecting substantial, painful cuts to services.

Oh, and one more thing: there's still that Sal DiMasi corruption case crawling through the courts, just waiting to drop additional bombshells.

Altogether, says one veteran State House observer, it's a perfect storm that's going to make 2010 "a brutal year" for lawmakers. That's why there's so much talk about getting a lot done very quickly in January — on education-reform, criminal-justice, gaming, and budget issues — before political realities grind Beacon Hill to a halt.

But some say that those items should have been tackled already, because it may already be too late.

Inaction trumps action
In a battle of wills on Beacon Hill, the side that wants to do nothing usually holds the advantage. That was the case last month, as DeLeo got his way on not making huge cuts proposed by Patrick.

That dispute began, at least ostensibly, with a genuine difference of opinion — although political concerns may have bubbled not far below the surface. Patrick had argued for some $600 million in emergency cuts to the current (fiscal year 2010) budget, which he said were necessary based on projections. DeLeo and House Ways & Means Chair Charles Murphy insisted that those projections, and thus the cuts, were premature. The House then passed, and the Senate ultimately agreed to, a much more modest set of cuts.

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