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Woes accelerate, government slows

Transition to DeLeo delays action

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 4, 2009
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Crisis? What crisis?

Despite a growing budget deficit, a financial meltdown, and the specter of deep cuts across state and municipal governments, legislators were largely absent from the State House yesterday, leaving aides to answer phone calls. The House chamber was empty as small groups of tourists filtered through the building.

By 4:30 yesterday afternoon, the other halls of government were almost vacant, the only sounds coming from one janitor pushing a trash can down an empty corridor and another buffing the floors.

The atmosphere was in sharp contrast to the US Capitol, which is a whir of activity as the new president, House members, and senators try to address the exploding financial crisis and soaring unemployment.

Yesterday's moderate snowfall was not the reason for the eerie quiet in Boston. Business at the State House is stalled because of the shakeup in the House leadership just as the legislative session was getting going, with the resignation of former speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi last week and the arrival of his replacement, Robert A. DeLeo.

But even though DeLeo was installed by his colleagues last week, the House is unable to conduct basic business because he has not made leadership appointments or named committee chairs. Committee assignments have not even been created nearly a month after the 2009 session began. Freshman lawmakers are still crammed into a fourth-floor office - called the bullpen - as they await their room assignments.

The lack of action is beginning to breed frustration, at least within the minority party.

"If there's ever a time we need to expedite the process it's now," said Representative Lewis G. Evangelidis, a Republican from Holden. "We're not, and it's frustrating."

"There seems to be a disconnect with events outside the building, where events are moving very quickly, and what's happening inside the building, where things are moving like molasses," said Senate minority leader Richard Tisei, a Republican from Wakefield. "There's not a lot of synergy going on here."

Governor Deval Patrick last week filed an emergency plan to close a $1.1 billion midyear budget gap. A portion of the plan needs legislative approval, including $327 million in spending from a reserves fund and $25 million in tax increases - an estimate that assumes the increases will be implemented by April 1.

"We've got a lot of work to do here," Patrick, who is visiting West Coast businesses this week to encourage job growth in Massachusetts, told reporters on Monday. "And I think the public is expecting the Legislature and us to get on with it."

The pace of work might not pick up for several weeks while DeLeo sorts through the delicate politics of picking a leadership team and naming the committee chairs, who do the actual business of legislating. He has been attending briefings as he develops positions on issues.

"Speaker DeLeo is addressing important business, ranging from the budget to ethics reform, as quickly as possible in the midst of a period of transition," said his spokesman, Jim Eisenberg, who noted that DeLeo has spent only six days in the post.

"A lot has been accomplished already in just the first four weeks of session," said David Falcone, a spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray.

The Legislature by nature is slower and more deliberative than the executive branch, and it typically takes several weeks to get going at the start of a legislative session. But several lawmakers said the pace is slower than normal this year.

"It's a little disjointed, but nothing to be concerned about yet," said Representative Michael Rodrigues, a Democrat from Westport who was a committee chairman under DiMasi. "When committees are finally established, we're going to come out of the blocks pretty quickly."

The only real action taken so far this year has been a vote to give the governor additional power to cut the budget. The Senate on Monday met at 11:05, said the Pledge of Allegiance, adopted a resolution, and then took a lunch break. All told, they met for a total of 12 minutes.

The House did even less.

Lawmakers met for 6 minutes - enough time to pledge allegiance to the flag, adopt two congratulatory resolutions, and adjourn.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com

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