July 16, 2017

On Beacon Hill: State House leadership thrust into game of thrones

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State House News Service / file

FORMERLY OF BEACON HILL: With Rep. Brian Dempsey's announcement last week that he is leaving the State House for a private sector job, all the Beacon Hill leaders at this 2005 press conference will have departed the Legislature. The group included (from left) Sen. Barry Finegold, co-chairs of Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy Rep. Dempsey and Sen. Michael Morrissey, Senate Health Care Financing Chairman Richard Moore, Senate President Robert Travaglini, and Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Therese Murray.

BOSTON — While he never spoke about it — or spoke much at all unless it was to explain a bill to his colleagues in caucus — state Rep. Brian Dempsey’s mere presence in the second-floor offices of the House Ways and Means Committee kept the wolves at bay.

As long as he held the chairmanship of that powerful committee, House Speaker Robert DeLeo did not have to worry about the kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that has periodically frustrated and undermined speakers in the past.

But everyone knows what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Dempsey, the Haverhill Democrat who announced last week that he accepted a job offer from lobbying firm ML Strategies [see story below], could have been speaker by now had DeLeo not preempted his term-limited exit from the Legislature by wiping the very eight-year limit he put into the rules in 2009 off the books in 2014.

Now the speaker says he’s running for re-election in 2018 and doesn’t have “any view in my mirror” in terms of an exit strategy. Dempsey said DeLeo’s prolonged stay had nothing to do with his decision to take off his lapel pin, loyal until the end.

But it’s hard not to wonder what if.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

House Speaker Robert DeLeo

DeLeo now has to choose a new Ways and Means chairman, or chairwoman, knowing that whoever he elevates will instantly be viewed as a contender to become the next speaker.

It also appears certain that DeLeo will face pressure from groups like the Black and Latino Caucus, the Women’s Caucus and the Progressive Caucus to pick a minority or a woman or someone more ideologically left of center.

Some of the names wafting through the halls as possible Dempsey successors include Economic Development Committee Chairman Rep. Joseph Wagner, Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch, Telecommunications Committee Chairman Thomas Golden, State Administration Committee Chairman Peter Kocot and Transportation Committee Chairman William Straus.

Gov. Charlie Baker learned of Dempsey’s plan to leave the Legislature when Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito called him on his cellphone in Providence, where the governor was taking part in the National Governors Association Summer Meeting.

The governor spent most of the day Thursday huddled behind closed doors with his fellow governors, who had one eye on their conference agendas and another on their smartphones as details of the U.S. Senate’s Obamacare repeal rewrite filtered out.

Vice President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price were both expected in Rhode Island over the weekend to sell the governors on a plan that already appears in jeopardy.

Baker remained back in Massachusetts Friday to continue reviewing the $40.2 billion budget he must act on by Monday, but issued a statement saying that after review he believes the revised Senate bill would “put a harmful strain on the state’s ability to continue providing healthcare coverage for the people of Massachusetts.”

Administration officials said the governor was also still working through the options for how to handle MassHealth in the near-term before any possible federal changes come over the transom. Baker said last Monday he was unsure whether he’d sign off on $200 million in new assessments on employers, agreed to by the Legislature, without the MassHealth eligibility reforms he sought as part of a compromise with the business community.

While Baker is expected to sign the budget, at least in part, on Monday, earlier this week he signed a hastily-approved $26 million spending bill to make sure that attorneys who handled cases for indigent clients last fiscal year could get paid.

The state’s penchant for underfunding the Committee for Public Counsel Services account caught up to it this month when CPCS ran out of money to pay the lawyers for their work.

— Matt Murphy


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