The Hill and the Hall Week in Review

1211555470Each 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: Dismissing the Deval Will Leave talk; the lumbering casino giant rumbles; while Brad Jones tries to wake the slumbering legislature.

This week, bizarre sexcapades yielded to the palace intrigue, paranoia, denunciations of the plebiscite, and scrambling to cram in work before vacation that normally dominates Beacon Hill. It was just as well. Journalists and political gossips had more than enough material to work with, and nobody had to stoop to make off-color jokes about shaving. On with the spectacle!

Governor Deval Patrick, who, thanks to Sal DiMasi’s well-documented problems with everything, has been enjoying a nice respite from notebook-wielding vampires, found himself back on the cover of the Herald this week. And it wasn’t because of the twenty best ways he’s saved Massachusetts, either.

The paper reported that, even though the governor has repeatedly said he won’t follow Barack Obama to Washington, Tim Murray has been raising a butt-load of money recently, and “and other top Democrats who could succeed him – including Attorney General Martha Coakley and Treasurer Tim Cahill – have been building their war chests with an eye toward a potentially bruising and wide-open 2010 race.” The next day, Patrick advisor Michael Goldman reiterated that, no, the governor isn’t going anywhere.

So why won’t this storyline die? Has the state’s political sense of self worth been so irreparably damaged by three pretty rich boys who couldn’t wait to leave us that we can’t believe we’ve finally found somebody who loves us for us?

“He laughs every time it comes up – over and over,” says a Beacon Hill operative who’s close to the administration. “He’s got to be looking in the mirror, thinking, what part of no don’t they get? He likes what he’s doing and he’s very settled. And he’s cognizant of the fact that the last three Republican governors” – funny that, in conversation, few on Beacon Hill even acknowledge Jane Swift anymore – “cut and ran. People don’t realize that, when you’re a Democratic governor, you want to stay here because you can actually govern. It’s a lack of understanding that being a Republican governor in a Democratic state isn’t any fun. Unless you’re on a trade mission.”

The operative compared the speculation over Patrick’s future to “hot stove baseball talk” – the stuff you talk about to see you through the lean months, until the real action returns in September and November. “I understand people covering their bets, contributing to the Attorney General. Why wouldn’t they? If she’s not the governor, she’s still going to be the AG. Tim Cahill raised a lot of money under a Republican governor, and he’s raising a lot of money under a Democratic governor. What’s changed?”

Reps on Dan Bosley’s economic development committee are asking themselves the same question this week. Three months ago, the committee effectively sank Patrick’s casino proposal. And now, here we are, with the administration once again declaring that casinos are inevitable, and skulking towards a compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag under the cloak of that inevitability. What’s changed here is actually a loaded question. In one corner, everything has. And in the other, nothing. Here’s why.

Last week, the feds backed off a longstanding threat to crack down on bingo slots – the magical alchemic machines that squeeze casino-ish action out of church hall bingo nights. The decision gives the Mashpee significant leverage over the state, and they can now threaten to go over the state’s head and open a Middleboro slots hall – assuming the feds approve their land-taking – if the legislature doesn’t hand them full-blown Vegas-style gambling.

Patrick’s people have long soiled themselves over the prospect of the Mashpee going it alone, so it’s no surprise that last week’s decision has brought them closer to the tribe’s negotiating table. The administration might not be talking numbers yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t.

Especially because, back home, nothing’s changed. The economic pressures that first forced the governor into the gambling industry’s withered, track-marked arms haven’t disappeared in the wake of the legislature’s March casino vote. If anything, they’ve gotten worse. If the governor’s going to make headway on his big-ticket agenda – lower property taxes, growing the biotech industry, and overhauling education – he needs new cash and lots of it, the Beacon Hill operative says.

Gambling was, “the fourth option on the table,” and since the legislature has largely nixed the notion of squeezing cash from telecom companies, corporations, and restaurants, “it’s got to come from somewhere. It’s never been about casinos. It’s about revenue. It’s about Patrick being able to deliver on his promises to lower property taxes and send more money to cities and towns. To do that, there has to be a pot of money.”

One problem with that equation: The more the legislature spends, or talks about spending, the more they invite total, unmitigated disaster. “We’re fighting over nickels, and we risk losing real dollars,” Minority Leader Brad Jones argues. He compares his legislative colleagues to “a compulsive eater who knows he shouldn’t keep eating, but he does because he just can’t help himself.” And the fatter the bottom line gets – tax collections are a billion dollars above projections this year, but all that money’s spoken for already – the more, Jones warns, voters will be tempted to lash out by eliminating the income tax in November.

“There will always be a segment of the population that thinks you should tax the air you breathe and the feelings you have,” Jones says. “And there’ll always be others who say you can’t tax anything. But the big chunk in the middle is starting to think, you’ve gone too far. They voted to go to five percent, and we said no. People up here need to understand what’s motivating people to think about something so extreme. You’d better hope it’s a warm October. Because, in the week before Election Day, if people go to the grocery store, then fill up their car, then go home and open up their heating bill, they’re going to vote yes. And these guys don’t get it. To fight for those extra bucks, we’re risking losing $12 billion.”

How is the other side of the aisle – the side that actually has the votes to put tough talk into motion – react to the possibility of losing all that cash? They beg and plead. And if that doesn’t work, apparently, it’s no matter. We’ll just play Florida – or is that Zimbabwe? – with the vote.

This week, House Speaker Sal DiMasi told the Metrowest Daily News, “I find myself hard-pressed to say that I would try to completely implement an elimination of the income tax.” That’s points for honesty there. But certainly not for tact.

“The speaker’s comments could potentially feed support for this question,” Jones says. “We can’t be cavalier, and brush aside the sentiment and substance of why this question might pass. This approach, that we could care less because we’re going to do what we want – it’s like having the person you beat on Election Day show up to take the oath of office.”

Wire services contributed to this report.