Score It a Big Week for the Bully Pulpit

By Thursday afternoon, June 25, the capitol had grown weary of waiting for Gov. Deval Patrick to pass judgment on bills on his desk re-wiring the transportation bureaucracy, tightening ethics laws, and escalating the state sales tax by 25 percent.

Senate President Therese Murray, the governor's foil for months, professed to "have no idea" what Patrick would decree at his early-evening press conference. Months of wrangling and suspense, boiled down to an extra humid day in June.

And if the building's emotions hadn't been rubbed raw enough, Farrah Fawcett was off to join the Mass. Turnpike Authority in the great beyond, followed shortly by Michael Jackson. The press conference crept a few slots down the news ladder.

Still, it was tempting to think that the celebrity expirations could fit neatly into the administration's insistence on urgency. If the lissome blonde's and Gloved One's deaths weren't part of the governor's arsenal, they were about the only things missing.

Patrick, who for years has railed against "government by press release or sound bite," for months deployed press releases, sound bites, and the kitchen sink against lawmakers to get to yes, where he found himself that Thursday.

Even if they were going to do some of it anyway. Even if, as frustrated legislators often point out, Patrick never filed a pension rules change, or didn't really get behind ethics reform until late last year, or waited two years and two transportation secretaries before disclosing his transportation package. Even if, they note while continuing to grind their teeth, he absconded with the nifty "reform before revenue" slogan after pummeling them into accepting his new business taxes and for resisting his local option and gas taxes. 

Doesn't matter. It was, by any measure, a solid week for Patrick. He'll dodge a $100 million toll hike without adding to the gas tax, yet, and gets to build a head of steam for November 2010 by claiming the reformer mantle that has thus far eluded him.

He'll have to put his name on the sales tax, but everyone can use an extra $900 million now and again, and he gets to say he ransomed the ethics bill for it.

It's unclear how many points he'll earn with the recession-, scandal-, and waste-fatigued electorate. It is clear that he didn't post too many with those he referred to as "our partners in the Great and General Court." Looking to depict Patrick as a grandstanding manipulator, they observed that they funded most of his priorities in the budget and elsewhere, but did so using alternative means, and said they shouldn't be targeted by perhaps unneeded hostage YouTubes, the governor, ostensibly, standing with a rattled-looking sales tax receipt and today's newspaper.

"It's childish," said Rep. Michael Moran, Democrat of Brighton, earlier in the week. "'I'm taking my ball and going home, because you didn't give me the ethics bill on time'."

That's why they call it the bully pulpit, Rep. The Legislature got schooled, they knew they were getting schooled, and in the end there wasn't a heck of a lot they could do about it. House Majority Leader James Vallee called it the "bumping and grinding" of the legislative process. The House and Senate got bumped and ground.

Under the ethics bill, which the Legislature mis-packaged by not touting the campaign finance elements, the Ethics Commission would grow stronger, the attorney general could open statewide grand jury investigations, the secretary of state could more thoroughly regulate lobbying, and ethics and corruption violations would carry heavier penalties. No more gifts for elected officials.

The heavily maligned Mass. Turnpike Authority is on its way out under the transportation omnibus, replaced by something called MassDOT. Employees will lose some benefits. Regional transit authorities will move to forward funding, which hasn't worked out well for the T.

Pegged at an annualized $900 million, the 25-percent sales tax bump pours $275 million a year into transportation, enough evidently to pacify Patrick but not necessarily to avert future toll, gas tax, or T fare hikes, or some combo of the three. Those decisions will be made down the line, along with the tougher ones on pension laws.

Transportation reform and revenue, and this wasn't in the press release, don't really come all that close to fixing a $20 billion problem over the next 20 years. "I don't want to take away from this important first step," said Stephen Silveira, who chaired the Transportation Finance Commission that diagnosed the funding gap. Silveira added that costs need to come down in order to solve the deficit. "This isn't over; that's for sure," he said.

Budget mayhem continued to chip away at the state's health care expansion, with overseers deciding June 23 to halt automatic enrollment for subsidized health care next year, when it looks as if that portion of the plan will cope with more than $100 million less than needed to keep pace.

Hospitals are dealing with postponed payments from the state and insurers are saying a $52 million universal immunization tax will harm small business. The "shared responsibility" symphony is coming across a few rough measures, and at the very moment the federales are looking at the commonwealth for guidance and inspiration.

The guv was all about the shared responsibility and achievement June 25, when nervous lawmakers and legislative aides flocked to his briefing room, professing to have no certainty about whether he'd sign the transportation and sales tax pieces.

How Patrick and the Legislature move forward now in that atmosphere has heavy implications for the criminal sentencing, criminal record, and education laws Patrick said are his next order of business. They've already given him the quiver of reforms he can trot out on the trail as evidence he's changed the Hill. What they give him in the next 16 months could make as much difference.