By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- The holiday week had pols feeling a bit peckish following last week's less-than-satisfying end-of-session meal. But with the governor departed for his in-laws in Atlanta and top Senate brass avoiding the New England chill in the Azores, it was time to settle in for some leftovers.
The halls of government were desolate by the afternoon of Nov. 27 and stayed that way on Friday, with thoughts of ballot questions, the minimum wage and welfare reform giving way to high school football rivalries and reunions, shopping, and the optimal time to beat the traffic on the turnpike. Welcome to Thanksgiving on the Hill.
But the work-week started normally enough, with a legislative hearing on Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal to reform municipal unemployment insurance and a Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez-Sen. Sal DiDomenico bill to create standards for early education and child care.
By Tuesday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo was at a ribbon-cutting in East Boston ruminating on what trains sounded like way back when he was a kid taking them to high school, while Mayor-elect Marty Walsh kept up his busy post-election schedule elbow deep in mashed potatoes and donning a red apron as he served at the annual Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition's Thanksgiving luncheon.
Pledging to be a "friend" to immigrants in City Hall, Walsh said if he could "get around it," he would stop the heavy-handed enforcement of the federal Secure Communities Act in Boston that has put immigrant communities on edge since the state was forced to accept it in 2012. Program supporters say it's taken dangerous criminals off the streets.
"People that get pulled over, I don't think that necessarily we have to bring in immigration for that," Walsh told reporters at the MIRA event, before reminding people that it's still Mayor Thomas Menino's domain and he would defer to him -- until Jan. 6.
While Walsh slung potatoes outside the Great Hall, DeLeo was in Orient Heights to mark the opening of the rebuilt Blue Line station, reminiscing about his days taking the train to Boston Latin. DeLeo no longer takes the train to work, but after putting transportation issues behind him in 2013, the Winthrop Democrat said next year is going to be all about unemployment insurance, the minimum wage and economic development.
DeLeo has been clear that after the Senate voted to raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour over the next three years, he wants the first two aforementioned issues tackled in one piece of legislation, an olive branch to the business community heading into an election year.
Exactly how the speaker plans to address the issues surrounding unemployment insurance, including the duration and eligibility for benefits, remains unclear, as does the substance of the "economic development" initiative DeLeo floated before clamming up.
As Vice President Joe Biden was settling in on Nantucket for his Thanksgiving holiday, President Barack Obama was at the White House on Wednesday signing legislation strengthening the Food and Drug Administration's oversight of drug compounding pharmacies.
It was one of the few things Congress could agree to without much fuss this year, and ironically a still open issue here in Massachusetts where the House and Senate could not get a bill done before the holidays despite overwhelming support in both branches for a stricter law.
DeLeo said he hopes the conference committees negotiating compounding pharmacy oversight, welfare system reforms and veterans benefits can reach agreement in December so those issues don't linger long into the new year.
The president put his pen to paper right after pardoning Popcorn and Caramel, two turkeys who will spend the rest of their days on Mount Vernon and then a farm in Virginia after becoming the beneficiaries of a presidential power Obama has been notably stingy in exercising, though not as miserly as Gov. Patrick who has granted clemency exactly zero times in his seven years in office -- not even for a turkey.
Petitioners seeking to put questions on next year's ballot also got to take a breather this week -- part of a 14-day window for relaxing between the day signatures were due to local clerks and the day when certified signatures must be handed in to the Secretary of State. That respite extended to backers of the "Tank the Automatic Gas Tax," who were apparently in no mood to explain why they have been arguing publicly that gas tax revenues go to the General Fund and do not directly support transportation projects, which, in fact, they do.
Holly Robichaud, a Republican strategist who got the ball rolling on the mistaken messaging, wouldn't acknowledge that, perhaps, she had made a mistake, while Rep. Geoff Diehl, a participant in last year's transportation financing bill debate, did not return calls about his decision to parrot Robichaud's claims.
"Any claim that that money isn't for transportation is simply not true," said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer, a quote gleefully circulated by transportation advocates, and ignored by gas tax indexing foes.
If there was business to transact this week, it was best completed before the turkey went into the oven, which is exactly what Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun did on Wednesday, finalizing agreement for the Connecticut-based tribal gaming operator to partner with the track on a revised, Revere casino.
Mohegan agreed to hold up all ends of the bargain struck between Revere and Suffolk Downs back when Caesars was still in the picture, and they're hoping that's enough for the Gaming Commission to green-light their last-minute gambit to shift a casino out of East Boston and into Revere.
The alternatives -- having to negotiate a new host community agreement and take a new referendum vote in Revere -- would make the Dec. 31 deadline for final applications seem like yesterday.
MassDOT also responded to an eye-opening audit on parking from the Inspector General's office that found unjustified parking assignments, high costs associated with underutilized spaces, and alleged non-compliance with federal tax laws associated with the use of two parking areas for state employees in downtown Boston.
Before breaking for Thanksgiving, MassDOT said it was developing a formal parking policy for employees. Agency heads everywhere take note.
STORY OF THE WEEK: A time to pause and give thanks.