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Is Beacon Hill Running Like a Finely Tuned Machine?

Feb 20, 2017 05:00AM ● By State House News

State House

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 17, 2017....If March college basketball is one of the biggest drains on workplace productivity of the year, then Beacon Hill bracketology has the opposite effect.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg finally filled in their seeding charts this week, allowing for the legislating process to truly begin. And no two chairmen will be more under the gun than Braintree's Rep. Mark Cusack and Somerville's Sen. Patricia Jehlen.

Cusack and Jehlen were tapped to co-chair the new Committee on Marijuana Policy, starting a four-month countdown-clock for the two Democrats and their committee to craft a comprehensive re-write of the recreational marijuana ballot law.

Jehlen, a legal marijuana supporter, was picked over Sen. Jason Lewis for the chairmanship after Lewis spent much of the past two years becoming the Senate's expert on marijuana policy. The problem for Lewis, however, was that he came out of that process an ardent opponent of legal pot and essentially tipped his hand by filing numerous bills already this year to change the law.

Instead, Lewis will serve as Jehlen's vice-chair, and Rosenberg is confident that Jehlen will be able to engage with the marijuana advocate community in ways that Lewis could not have. 

On the House side, Cusack is something of a wildcard. He would not say Thursday how he voted on the ballot question, and DeLeo touted Cusack's open-mindedness on the issue as a chief selling point for his selection to lead the pot effort.

Gov. Charlie Baker has suggested he would like to see a bill even earlier than June. But the Republican has his plate full as well dealing with a new White House administration that challenges, on a near daily basis, his desire to remain above the fray and getting a new Supreme Judicial Court nominee confirmed by a Governor's Council that increasingly makes Congressional infighting look like child's play. 

Baker has yet to announce his re-election campaign, but with his 2018 candidacy all but assured (he's in Florida this weekend fundraising) the script is already being written by Democrats to challenge the popular governor, and the lead actor is President Donald Trump.

Confronted with some of Trump's latest unsubstantiated and refuted claims that thousands of Massachusetts residents rode buses to New Hampshire in November to illegally vote for Hillary Clinton, Baker sought shelter in the basement from the one of the newest Trumpnados.

"I don't know much about what goes on in New Hampshire, so I'm really not in a position to speak to that one. Obviously, if people have concerns up there I'm sure there's a process for redress that you can pursue to determine if, in fact, there were any issues," Baker said.

The Democratic Governors Association accused Baker of ducking Trump, state Democrats called on him to more forcefully denounce the president's conspiracy theorizing and Baker begged to let him just focus on Massachusetts.

Instead of huddling with his team to discuss how to respond to the White House – as House Democrats did this week – Baker went before the Greater Boston Chamber Commerce, and announced he would start a search for a full-time general manager of the MBTA. 

He also urged  a two-year extension on the Fiscal and Management Control Board that would put the transit agency under the watch of the control board through 2020.

Speaker DeLeo on Thursday afternoon said he had not heard that Baker wanted to extend the FMCB's lifespan, but offered praise for the work done so far by the control board to get their hands around the MBTA's budget.

Baker also joined with the Legislature this week to celebrate the centennial year of John F. Kennedy's birth, albeit three months before J.F.K.'s actual birthday. And in remarks in the House chamber, Baker said J.F.K. would be disappointed by the "coarseness of modern-day politics.” 

What would he think, then, of the modern-day Governor's Council?

For the second straight week, the elected body that vets Baker's judicial nominees dissolved into a puddle of name-calling, accusations and fist-pounding. 

Though the animosity ostensibly stemmed from a disagreement over how the vote was handled for a Superior Court nominee, the eight-member council can barely be in the same room together anymore. And the anger runs deeper than one nominee.

Councilors Mary Hurley, a Democrat, accused Councilor Marilyn Devaney of raining “terror” upon the council, and Jennie Caissie, a Republican, said the council's reputation “as a laughing stock” can be put squarely at Devaney's feet for bring incivility to the process. Devaney yelled back that she was being bullied for standing up for the rules, if they even exist, and accused Caissie of spending too much time in a local watering hole.

Meanwhile, Councilor Robert Jubinville accused Councilor Joe Ferreira of being a “bootlicker” and a “rubber stamp” for the governor as he pounded his fist on the table two times to drive home his point. 

And all of this transpired within the governor's suite with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito hopelessly trying to maintain order and staffers poking their heads out of offices wondering what could be going on. 

What will happen next week is anyone's guess, but SJC nominee Elspeth Cypher must be holding her breath as she prepares to go before the body on March 1 looking for the biggest promotion of her career.

Next week will also bring recommendations from the Council of State Governments on criminal justice system reforms, and the commission led by Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez and Sen. James Welch examining health provider price variation appears to be leaning toward price regulation as a solution to soaring costs.

Sanchez and Welch are both continuing on this session as the chairs of the Health Care Financing Committee in what, presumably, was one of the easier decisions to be made in a process of musical chairs that Rosenberg described as “more difficult than redistricting.”

Part of the difficulty lies in preparing for the yet unknown, like will the team put in place now be there tomorrow? The Senate President's office heard the rumors about Sen. Thomas McGee like a lot of people, and it appears there may be fire underneath the smoke.

Several people close to McGee – who for now remains Transportation Committee chairman - said this week they would very surprised if the former Democratic Party Chairman didn't get into the race this year for mayor of Lynn. 

McGee would not return calls seeking comment, but he held a fundraiser at the UMass Club on Wednesday night that supposedly had a strong Lynn flavor. 

Winthrop Sen. Joseph Boncore will be McGee understudy (vice chairman) on transportation issues for now.

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