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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Overstepping the bounds

The battle between Deval Patrick and legislative leaders is really taking on an intensity that hasn't been seen around here since then-Senate President Kevin Harrington publicly challenged Michael Dukakis during Duke I.

The Legislature has always "enjoyed" the right to offer names for various open government positions (it's called patronage). But in circulating a letter calling on Patrick to reinstate a commissioner of an executive branch agency, lawmakers haven't just stepped over the line, they have offered a defiant challenge to Patrick's leadership -- something he needs to slap down in no uncertain terms.

Angelo Scaccia, the Hyde Park Democrat who chairs the rules committee that decides what legislation makes it to the floor for debate, is calling in favors for former Department of Mental Retardation Commissioner Gerald Morrissey, who has worked for the state for 30 years and done a myriad of favors over that time.

Without much subtlety, Scaccia is circulating a letter to colleagues during the House budget debate and as one unnamed lawmaker told the Globe "You don't say no to Angelo."

Well, the state Ethics Commission did. In the 1990s, when Scaccia served as vice chair of taxation, the lawmaker was found to have accepted free meals and rounds of golf from tobacco and insurance industry lobbyists without disclosing them on his statement of financial interests.

Scaccia went to court and the Supreme Judicial Court gave him only the narrowest of moral victories:
Because the administrative record fails to establish a link to any official act performed by Scaccia, we vacate that portion of the Superior Court decision regarding the gratuity statute. The record, however, clearly supports a finding that Scaccia violated the gift statute, the financial disclosure law, and the public officials' code of conduct statute, and we accordingly affirm those portions of the Superior Court judge's decision.
Perhaps emboldened by surviving his near-death experience, he has been a major part of the Flaherty, Finneran and DiMasi leadership teams with the power to determine if individual lawmakers get their priorities onto the floor for debate.

The bold power grab here is unprecedented. Naming court clerks is one thing, naming executive branch commissioners is entirely different-- and inappropriate.

Scaccia obviously has the approval of his boss, Sal DiMasi, who apparently is taking a few shots of his own at Patrick.

In an interview on New England Cable News, DiMasi stung the governor and his staff when he spoke of Patrick's inexperience, which he said had led him to make mistakes. Savvy lawmakers know not to drive "flashy" cars, he said, a reference to Patrick's controversial lease of a Cadillac. He also referred to Patrick's decision to spend $27,000 to refurbish his office, money he later agreed to reimburse.

"We don't buy curtains," DiMasi told interviewer Jim Braude. "My office has the same curtains there for about 25 years. My furniture, my floor is a mess, but I haven't changed anything, because I know there's criticism coming. He didn't know that. That's the problem."

Aside from the fact no one will confuse the Speaker's ornately wood paneled digs as a redesigner's dream project, DiMasi apparently has a short memory about his own problems in making the transition into the top job.

As Scot Lehigh noted toward the end of DiMasi's first year as Speaker:

For months, the question on Beacon Hill was, what will Sal do? But that has long since given way to a different query: When will Sal do something?

Why has DiMasi's House had the very soul of molasses? Early on, the word was that furious Finneranians toppled from leadership posts refused to go gently into smaller offices.

Next, that the Legislature's new committee structure had created jurisdictional confusion.

Then, that DiMasi's leadership team needed time to learn their roles, the power of independent initiative having been all but extinguished during the iron reign of Thomas Finneran.

But as winter surrendered to spring, spring warmed to summer, and summer turned to fall, it has become increasingly apparent that DiMasi himself doesn't feel much urgency to do anything.

What are the speaker's priorities? Well, travel would certainly rank as one.

The Legislature always treats itself to a leisurely summer, but this speaker has set a new standard.

In mid-August, DiMasi took a trip to Israel. Then, just after Labor Day, when most people were refocusing on work, he departed for a golf vacation in Ireland, a birthday gift from his wife.

His excellent Emerald Isle adventure over, DiMasi decided that duty called him to Las Vegas to attend the National Speakers Conference -- and spend a few extra days. As far as lodging went, that trip was partly a gift from the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, the conference host.

People who live in glass Houses shouldn't throw rocks at Cadillacs.

The Patrick people clearly got off to a poor start and are paying the price. But the House leadership is stepping so out of bounds -- especially when their own less-than-pristine history is recalled.

It's time to get on doing the public's business and not focusing on helping their friends and scoring political points.

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