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Suffolk holidays survive challenge

Amendment fails in state Senate

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / May 30, 2009
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The recent assault on the traditions of Suffolk County did not spill blood like the Battle of Bunker Hill or require the cunning that forced the red coats out of Boston without a shot in 1776.

But it was an assault nonetheless, taking aim at Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day. A budget amendment in the state Senate threatened to end the two only-in-Suffolk-County holidays, which have been enjoyed by public employees since the Great Depression - and cost the state several million dollars.

Then a defender from South Boston stood tall on the Senate floor.

"If we eliminate these holidays today in Suffolk County, then what's next?" asked Senator Jack Hart, a Democrat, during last week's budget debate. "Do we eliminate maybe Presidents' Day? Do we eliminate July Fourth? Why don't we get rid of Thanksgiving? Why don't we think about getting rid of Christmas?"

The amendment backers, who had goaded their opponents into such hyperbole, shot back with sarcasm and a fake Irish brogue, mocking Hart and his annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast, which coincides with Evacuation Day on March 17.

"Christmas is for the children," said Senator Michael R. Knapik, a Westfield Republican. "We are not going to take the holidays away from the children, please. But the holidays for the hacks? Yes, the holidays for the hacks need to go."

But the holidays did not go. The amendment failed by five votes.

That means on June 17, Bunker Hill Day, all schools, libraries, and city and state offices will remain closed in Suffolk County. The same will be true next Evacuation Day, giving an estimated 35,000 workers the day off, according to a rough tally compiled with the help of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Public employees outside of Suffolk County also benefit from the holidays with two floating days off. Both occasions combined cost the state roughly $5 million in lost time and overtime to fill shifts, according to Knapik. The proposal to kill the holidays, put forward by the Republican caucus, was one of more than 700 amendments tacked onto the $27.35 billion budget eventually passed by the Senate. In the flurry of yeas and nays, a spirited debate over the holidays on May 21 stretched for 16 minutes. Knapik launched the first salvo.

"These two holidays drive me up a wall, Suffolk-only holidays," Knapik said. "As if it's that special of a county that we should all bow in reverence to it."

Hart shot back what began as a misfire.

"In my district, St. Patrick's Day is a very important amendment," Hart said, making perhaps a subconscious slip when referring to Evacuation Day. The Democrat quickly righted his argument, however, blending Boston's Irish roots and the holiday commemorating when the Continental Army hauled 50 cannons up Dorchester Heights and surprised the British.

"We're talking about where this republic began," said Hart, whose district includes Dorchester Heights. "Let's not be expedient here for the sake of saving a couple of dollars."

In Knapik's retort, he compared Hart to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough.

"He weaves these great tales of the Irish and Boston and all the glories of days gone by," Knapik said in a put-on brogue. "But when you leave Suffolk County, the history ends."

That gave Hart an opening to take aim at Knapik's district in the western part of the state.

"I don't know what kind of history you have outside in Hamden and Hampshire [counties], but we have real history here in the city," Hart said. "We have great history here in Suffolk County, and we are not afraid to celebrate it."