The Hill and the Hall Week in Review

1209137463Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This week: Brad Jones takes on everybody, fun with urls, and the most popular man in Boston: Thomas M. Menino.

We already know that next week’s budget debate won’t see a whole lot of actual debate. The days of the House pulling weeks worth of all-nighters and clawing over a couple thousand amendments, one after the other, are long gone. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be fireworks when Reps slog through this year’s glut of cash-money add-ons.

The latest phantom voting scandal is already more than a week old, but it doesn’t show signs of going away any time soon. With any luck, it’ll be one of the stars of the budget debate. Minority Leader Brad Jones is making sure of that.

House Republicans have filed an amendment “restoring a level of integrity to the [voting] process,” setting aside money to overhaul the chamber’s voting system. The system is antiquated and “on its last legs” anyway, Jones says. If it broke down next week, nobody would be around to fix it, because the technology that makes it run doesn’t exist anymore. So, the GOP figures, if the state’s going to have to spend money to replace the thing, it might as well do so while Charles Murphy’s St. Croix to Boston vote still has legs on talk radio.

Voting irregularities in the House are symptomatic of a larger institutional disorder. When Sal DiMasi stands atop the rostrum, he’s less a Speaker than a cat herder – and these ain’t no trained Russian circus cats, either.

Members habitually mill throughout the chamber, sitting at each other’s desks, loudly trading jokes, and totally ignoring whatever debate is happening in the front of the room. Every once in a while, a Republican or a Democratic backbencher will stand up and complain that they can’t hear. The chair will halfheartedly demand order, which will reign for forty-five seconds or so, and then the din returns.

In this sort of atmosphere, Jones says, it’s not uncommon for members to find themselves unable to walk over to their desks and vote, and wave across the chamber to have a colleague vote them green or red.

“There’s certainly a cavalier attitude,” he says, “and the outcomes are preordained, the votes aren’t close. It all feeds into it.”

Members of his caucus have consistently tried to curb phantom voting, “in a way that it’s not personal. We’ve raised the issue, but it has still happened. We had Animal House in 2000, and some of the same people are still here, and it’s become a recurring problem. I wish the answer was as easy as a memo saying, ‘Don’t do it,’ but what’s unwritten in the memo is, ‘at least not in the near future, because the press is paying attention now. But sooner or later, they’ll go on to something else, and things can go back the way they were.’”

We’ve already been treated to a preview of the lines leadership will use to dodge action. “The Speaker’s said he’s concerned about the budget. To say that with a straight face is laughable,” Jones alleges. He says that the line item wouldn’t actually affect the overall budget’s bottom line, since there’s already money in separate legislative accounts that could be used on a new vote-counting system. But an out is an out, and this year, pinching pennies is the best out proponents of the current system have.

“We’ll say, we can’t do this for $200,000, but we’ll go and spend $40 million somewhere else,” Jones says. “And if members and leadership followed the rules and treated the role of voting like the privilege it is, we wouldn’t have to spend any money.”

Crying poor will be the hot trend next week. State Treasurer Tim Cahill called members from both parties into a special legislative caucus two weeks ago and warned them, essentially, that the state’s fiscal future is borderline-screwed. Reps responded by filing 1,512 amendments to the FY09 budget. If enacted, they’d fatten the bottom line by more than $1.5 billion. By contrast, Jones says, House Republicans filed just a handful of budget amendments. If all were enacted (not a chance), the state’s bottom line would shrink by $22 million this year. “We actually listened to the Treasurer’s message,” Jones says.

The have to. The state GOP, at the legislative level, doesn’t have the clout to spearhead many of the kinds of aggressive policies Mitt Romney pushed as governor. They’re nowhere close to being able to sustain a gubernatorial veto, if they were ever so inclined. Instead, they’ve been relegated to a sort of reformist watchdog role – and there’s been no shortage of low hanging fruit.

“There’s an income tax ballot question looming,” Jones says, “and the people who are most fearful of that question are the ones giving people the biggest incentive to vote for it. They’re increasing taxes, they’re spending more money than we have, and by the way, people are worrying about $5-a-gallon gas, and how they’re going to afford to heat their homes next winter.”

In addition to the phantom voting amendment, the minority caucus is pushing an amendment eliminating the practice of inflating state pensions with unused vacation time and housing allowances – look out, Billy! It’s the type of amendment that probably should pass, but won’t. And it’s the type of sound, populist policy the party will have to chase if it’s to avoid being tossed even further into electoral oblivion this fall.

From the Department of LOL: The governor’s office sent out a press release this week touting something having to do with their Workforce Training Fund. The program’s URL?

The Boston Globe outlined just how much work any potential mayoral challengers have in front of themselves, when a poll showed Mayor Menino sitting on top of a staggering 72% approval rating. Running against a guy with a fat war chest is one thing, but running against a guy with a fat war chest who’s also universally beloved is a different prospect altogether.

The paper’s follow-up story brought into sharp relief the puzzle that any challenger will have to solve: Here’s the mayor, flexing and clowning around for a reporter while bullets are flying all over town, and nobody says anything about the juxtaposition of the two.

“He’s never taken a punch,” says one City Hall insider. “They usually snuff people out before they ever get in the ring.” Between the ongoing fire department soap opera and kids getting shot in the head in gentrifitastic sections of town, you’d think there would be some damage just waiting to fall on Hizzoner’s head. “That shine can be taken off.”

At the same time, this insider says, the poll shows just how impossible it might be to topple Menino. “I don’t doubt that 54% of the people in that poll had met him personally. People can’t keep up with that. And that’s where he’s different – you might be able to land a few punches, but do you really think you can get 51% of the vote against a guy who knows half the people answering a poll?”

Wire services contributed to this report.