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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, January 07, 2009

War of the worlds

Today's a big day up on Beacon Hill -- and the priorities of the leader of the executive branch and one of the legislative branches show just how wide a gulf there is under the Golden Dome.

While Sal DiMasi lays the groundwork for another term as House Speaker, gathering his loyalists by his side in the opening moves of a leadership battle, Gov. Deval Patrick plans to formally file legislation that would take on the culture in which DiMasi has grown and thrived.

Unlike the casino battle between the two last year, Patrick enters the fray with public support on his side. But when the dust settles, expect DiMasi to win again.

That's just the way things happen in The Building.

Patrick's sweeping proposal to give regulators subpoena and wiretap power would make a serious dent in the backslapping, glad handing ways that business gets done in Massachusetts (and countless legislative bodies across the nation).

Take for example, the view from Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who is charged with regulating lobbyists,
"If I had the subpoena and enforcement power, I would have been able to get answers immediately," said Galvin, "instead of having to go through this protracted extraction of information that was never really complete. "
Or Inspector General Greg Sullivan, whose office was created in 1981 in the wake of the Ward Commission investigation into the last major legislative scandal. The IG is appointed by the governor, auditor and attorney general.
"I never thought I'd see this day. If this passes, I think it will be the most significant legislation since I've been inspector general by far."
But note the key words -- if this passes.

That's because the governor proposes and the legislature disposes. And DiMasi, who has been at the center of the controversies over allegations of improper influence, almost seemed to stifle a yawn in reacting.
"Massachusetts faces serious challenges in the coming year - from finding ways to balance our budget amid a crushing fiscal crisis to reforming our transportation system to make it fairer for all," he said. "The best way to maintain and build upon the public's trust is by tackling these problems directly, leveling with people, and engaging them in our solutions."
All quite true. But within the Massachusetts House, where all fiscal legislation originates, the focus has been on the speaker's grip on power. The controversies swirling around him -- and the very public jockeying to succeed him -- has been the main topic of business. That was true at the end of the last session in July, when palace intrigue almost overtook the people's business.

The Globe's Matt Viser paints a superb picture of the alternate reality:
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi has made public statements that are directly at odds with the findings of state investigators. His close friends are under scrutiny by state and federal prosecutors, and one has been charged criminally with secretly trading on his connections to the speaker.

Poll numbers say DiMasi's popularity among voters is plunging.But today, with little opposition, he is expected to win an overwhelming victory as the majority of his 159 colleagues in the House re-install him for a third two-year term.
A far different world view from that of the public, which is very concerned about the aroma that has emerged from the House as well as the Senate, where two former members left early because of legal problems.

The governor desperately needs a substantial win in his quiver after losing the casino fight last year and facing nothing but endless headaches over the budget and the subsequent inability to do anything about his campaign promises about property tax relief and improving education.

But in DiMasi's Beacon Hill world, the priority is on controlling the troops. And because that is ultimately who he answers to -- as well as the voters of his North End district -- DiMasi is under no pressure to accede to Patrick. In fact, stalling the proposal curries favor with those members.

I wouldn't bet on the Legislature passing a reform package anywhere near that which Patrick is proposing. It's unlikely legislators will put a gun to their own heads and pull the trigger.

And more importantly, what will happen to them if they don't buy in? The overwhelming majority run unopposed because of the inability of the Massachusetts Republican Party to field even a junior varsity team. And don't forget the old line that people hate the legislature but it's the other person's representative who is to blame.

Ultimately, we are all to blame.

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Blogger Dan Kennedy said...

Mr. O.L.: What is the evidence for your statement that the public is on Gov. Patrick's side with respect to ethics legislation? I, for one, need to be convinced that wiretapping authority should be expanded. If anything, there's too much wiretapping going on in this society already.

January 07, 2009 7:43 PM  
Blogger Outraged Liberal said...

The public broadly supports the concept of cracking down of public corruption and misconduct. They likely don't get caught up in the details.

I think we will see a healthy debate on the specifics (presuming we see a debate), where the pros and cons and appropriate use of wiretapping will be discussed.

January 08, 2009 4:46 AM  
Blogger Dan Kennedy said...

The public also broadly believes that all politicians are corrupt, which we know isn't the case.

January 08, 2009 2:02 PM  
Blogger Outraged Liberal said...

Wiretapping is an appropriate tool in a prosecutor's arsenal. The key of course, is to have a prosecutor who knows how to use it properly.

To deny the tool would be the equivalent of denying all teens the right to drive because a few of them abuse the privilege. As long as there are appropriate checks and balances -- and appropriate punishment for misuse and abuse -- it is a worthwhile tool.

January 09, 2009 4:32 AM  

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