On the Hill: Vets’ bonuses, legislative calls, campaign bluster

Massachusetts, which fashions itself the nation’s leader in thanking veterans with government benefits, went further last week week, increasing cash bonuses for repeated tours of duty, taking the controversial step of permitting faxed and e-mailed votes from overseas, and trying to hook up more returning veterans with business opportunities.

Last Wednesday was Veterans’ Day. The administration counts 440,901 veterans in Massachusetts. Eighteen of them fought in four conflicts – World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War. Federal and state government officials did not have a breakdown of how many soldiers are currently on active duty. There are 27,000 veterans eligible for the post-9/11 “Welcome Home” payments, and officials say 19,000 have received them.

Over in the playpen that is the state’s political culture, with days remaining until the end of formal legislative business for the year, the House voice-voted its approval of legislation establishing off-track betting parlors at Wonderland in Revere and Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park, depriving eager observers of what could have been a proxy vote on slots and casinos.

The House-Senate Education Committee brought Gov. Deval Patrick a big stride closer to a legacy victory by endorsing much of his education agenda. Their bill dramatically grows the number of charter schools, establishes a new breed of schools aimed at flexible innovation, and enables more aggressive top-down intervention in lousy schools. Its prospects in the House are less clear but favorable. There’s a lot of heat on this baby.

Garnering far more attention
this week was the stutter-step toward, and eventual veering away from, allowing a convicted domestic terrorist to speak at UMass-Amherst. Just about everyone on the Hill regarded this as a bad idea and said so, joining police groups, victim families, and a whole lot of other folks. Civil libertarians and some editorial boards accused opponents of Ray Luc Levasseur’s remarks of stifling freedom of speech.

The weekly installment of gruesome economic news was a sizeable one. Turns out that, despite what political leaders have been chanting, mantra-like, about the state’s faster-than-the-nation rebound, unemployment is now projected to worsen next year to 9.6 percent, with jobs numbers not recovering to pre-recession levels until mid-2013, according to the New England Economic Partnership. The recession is over nationally, just not here, analysts said. And coming down the already wreck-strewn fiscal pike is a projected $900 million spike in annual pension appropriations, a 64-percent explosion that Patrick budget aides are looking to avoid, perhaps by prolonging the state’s pension liabilities. New budget boss Jay Gonzalez might have the ugliest job in the state, and that’s without the enlarged budget-slashing powers/curse that the governor has requested and may not receive until next year.

Also on the policy front, but with easy-to-digest battle lines already drawn: the prospect of adding a law school to UMass’s Dartmouth campus. This has hefty gubernatorial campaign implications, and will probably be decided behind closed doors, the way these big-ticket higher education matters often are, as it unfolds early next year. Patrick supports it, pending a cost analysis.

Drama in the Senate race
, in its best week yet, dwelt largely on gaffe-tracking. Lots of remarks revised and amended. Hours after crowing that Attorney General Martha Coakley had rained “manna from heaven” on him by pulling support from the House health care bill because it banned federally funded abortions, Congressman Michael Capuano appeared to spit the bread by adopting a similar position. Steve Pagliuca announced last Thursday that he wanted to bring back the draft, then clarified that he did not. Alan Khazei challenged Stephen Colbert to a debate.

If Coakley hangs on between now and the Dec. 8 primary, House Speaker Robert DeLeo is going to have a big decision to make. He made the unsurprising announcement this week he wouldn’t take her job, which leaves him with the choice – essentially his alone – of who should get it. Does DeLeo spy the best person for top cop when he surveys the room during his Monday sessions with his leadership team? Or is he wary, as some House members believe, of the perception that such a hand-off would constitute unbecoming coziness, at a time when voters are already suspicious that good government isn’t all that goes on up here?

Throw another name into the potential cluster situation that would ensue if Coakley won: Patrick’s top public safety aide, Kevin Burke. Burke was D.A. for the Eastern District from 1979 to 2002, then ran a consulting firm. Before all that, he represented Beverly in the House for four years during the late-’70s, possessed of a rocking bushy hair-do and an ambition for higher office. Burke is among Patrick’s more highly regarded Cabinet secretaries, and his years of remove from the Lower Chamber could be sufficient to minimize the “hack hand-off” perception.

Also, Paul Kirk will be looking for work.

As much as the speaker is mindful of the larger electorate’s opinion of the Hill, the reality is that he represents 40,000 people in Winthrop and Revere, and then another 160 in the House. He’ll need 81 votes to keep the speakership, 56 fewer than he earned in January. Perhaps he will decide the A.G.’s already in the room with him.
He would’ve had another decision if Auditor Joseph DeNucci had decided to retire immediately instead of serving out his term. An open auditorship would be a prime opportunity to dent the Democratic hegemony for a healthy Republican Party, which Massachusetts’s is not, presumably offering a candidate an opening to argue that he/she should be elected to keep those tax-and-spend rascals in line.

And DeNucci’s departure will further enliven the rodeo fully underway among politicos with mouths watering at the spate of openings. Dominoes flying everywhere, everybody’s viable, and if you’re an individual who derives incomes from the designing and conducting of campaigns you are not concerned about joining the 9.6 percent.

“There’s no there there,” said Gov. Patrick in brushing aside suggestions of a “quid pro quo” between him and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who along with wife Myra maxed out to the Patrick/Murray reelection effort, $12,000 between the two of them to the three separate committees. This came as the administration is steering $9 million in stimulus funds to a footbridge at Patriot Place, a project officials argued has legitimate economic and public safety benefits, the governor saying he believed it the “largest shovel-ready commercial space in the Commonwealth. We’re making these decisions on the merits. There are other projects that we have invested in, and there is no connection between campaign contributions, which as you know are quite modest in the Commonwealth, and investments that stand on their own.”