Joan Vennochi

The battle for Beacon Hill

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / January 27, 2008

MAKE WAY for the speaker who would be governor.

"Get behind the ropes. Get behind the ropes," squawked a court officer, acting as House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi's personal advance man.

DiMasi wanted the press in its place - behind the velvet cord - before offering his official reaction to Governor Deval Patrick's State of the State address. It was a bit imperious, though fitting, for a speaker who kept a governor in his place by thwarting most of his first-year agenda.

If DiMasi maintains similar control of Beacon Hill in 2008, Patrick's second year will be as frustrating as his first, and the governor knows it.

Patrick served up some gubernatorial grit along with his customary eloquence: "The cost of inaction is too high," he said. Calling himself an "impatient man," he pressed legislators to embrace his agenda: "schools, jobs, and civic engagement."

The problem: he plans to underwrite some of that agenda with revenue that exists, to date, only in Patrick's fantasies. His $28.2 billion budget is balanced partly on fees from casinos yet to be approved and the promise of new tax revenues from business. That, plus a troubling downward trend in the economy that could affect existing state revenue, continue to give leverage to DiMasi.

Last year, DiMasi said no to virtually everything Patrick proposed. So, the question for 2008 is whether the speaker will say yes to anything.

During an interview Friday at the Globe, Patrick suggested that he's willing to do some horsetrading with DiMasi, but "we're not at the deal part right now." He sounded aggrieved by the speaker's past reluctance to give proposals a hearing or vote on the House floor. "There's a cult of deal-making I expected," he said, but added, "It's hard to make deals with nothing on the table. That I didn't expect."

As for DiMasi's opposition to gambling, Patrick said, "He's one vote. It should come to the floor." Under the current Beacon Hill culture, "It seems like a radical thing to ask that your proposals be debated and voted on," he complained.

Recession fears strengthen DiMasi's hand when it comes to rejecting Patrick's proposals to generate more state revenue from business or local tax options.

But Patrick's casino gambling proposal challenges the speaker's authority.

DiMasi opposes expanded gambling in Massachusetts, but some House members support it, and there's even more enthusiasm in the Senate. Patrick's rosy predictions of 20,000 permanent jobs, 30,000 construction jobs, a $2 billion boost to the tourism industry, property tax relief, and "a steady new revenue stream" drew some of the loudest cheers during his speech.

Asked afterward whether Senate members voiced the noisiest approval, Senate President Therese Murray said, "I heard it from everywhere." Added Murray, who, unlike DiMasi, let reporters surround her as she took questions: "We have to do something. . . . We have a structural deficit."

DiMasi is promising that casino legislation will come up for a vote in 2008. The speaker has little choice, because of pressure from members and from the economy. Union support, which Patrick is wisely marshaling on his side, is another pressure point.

However, Patrick's speech alone won't shift the overall Beacon Hill power balance.

The governor needs some other way to accomplish that. He said he's going back to the grass roots, which helped elect him. But with liberal activists resistant to casinos, it's unclear how successful he will be.

Right after Patrick's election, DiMasi started taking unsubtle swipes at the first Democratic governor in 16 years. Last year, the speaker slammed Patrick for his political skills and his office redecorating. Last week, he was particularly cutting as he worked to undercut Patrick's support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Both Patrick and Obama are inexperienced, DiMasi implied at a press conference called to promote Hillary Clinton's presidential bid.

There should be common ground between these two Democrats, but so far, they seem unable to reach it on many issues.

At the Globe, Patrick also decried the "enormous concentration of power in the leadership" of the House and Senate. The ability to move his agenda forward, he said, depends more than people realize on "what the leadership . . . think or feel."

So far, DiMasi thinks he's in charge. He will be, unless Patrick does something to change that.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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