A Virtuous Cycle of Fear and Loathing

There is a lot more to reform, but by any fair reckoning, the last four months of legislative activity have been extraordinarily productive. It didn’t have to turn out that way.

Going back to the start of the year, no one knew where the bottom would be for the economy, many were questioning the re-electability of the Governor, two Senators had been indicted and the leader of the House of Representatives was under a thick cloud.

The fully justified anxiety and disgust of the electorate were deafening in the State House in January. The pressure could have produced an explosion of crippling conflict in the building. Fortunately, instead, each bitter round of sound bites worked to raise our ambitions for broader reforms. Key players were able to steady their emotions and maintain the focus needed to deliver excellent legislation.

Early in the season, the Senate President, Therese Murray and her Transportation Chair, Stephen Baddour, with a strong sense of the taxpayer outrage, turned the principle of “Reform before Revenue” into the mantra of the legislature. Although I do not share their reservations about a gas tax, their insistence on substantive reform before tax increases helped set a tone for the season.

Governor Patrick showed himself capable of effective spit-ball politics, and helped create momentum for more aggressive reforms. He started out against the gas tax, did nothing with transportation reform for two years, proposed a toll increase, proposed a gas tax and a variety smaller regressive taxes. Finally, sensing the justice and political power of the Senate position, he did a complete somersault and began battering “the legislature” in every forum possible, positioning himself as the outsider demanding “reform before revenue.” In fact, legislative leadership had already defined an agenda that would lead to reform before revenue. But the Governor effectively added his voice to those voices within the legislature who were calling for the strong versions of reform.

A principle reason that the Governor’s tactics didn’t backfire is the maturity of our current legislative leadership team. Lesser politicians might have given themselves over to anger.

Our new House Speaker Bob Deleo has put in place a team that is all about getting things done. As the politics got ugly, they just kept working. Joe Wagner, of Chicopee, the House Transportation Chair, spent months with his cell phone glued to his ear, assembling the pieces of the landmark transportation reform bill. Peter Kocot, House chair of the Ethics committee ran an exhaustive process that built an improbable consensus among political regulators and legislators, the regulated, for a huge strengthening of the regulation of political activity. Bob Spellane managed with great agility the simplest, but most delicate issue — the pension reforms that did away with special benefits for members of the legislature. The House Majority leader, Jim Vallee, worked behind the scenes to maintain lines of communication among the branches. And Charlie Murphy, the Ways and Means chair crisply managed one of the most difficult budget reconciliations in decades, working with minimal friction with his Senate counterpart. The Speaker presided over this team with appropriate public reserve — listening closely to the concerns of the House members and working with the Senate President to steer the process to a successful and timely conclusion before the start of the fiscal year.

As proud as I am of my colleagues, I do not mean to suggest that voters should let us off the hook on reform issues now. We’ve made great progress, addressing problems that have languished for decades, but there is much more to do. There is a group working on deeper pension reforms. I was pleased to see the Governor return to the longer-term problem of transportation infrastructure maintenance and mention the gas tax. And I believe that we need to develop a new vision for education reform — one that works within the long term economic constraints that we face.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.