The Hill and the Hall Week in Review
Each 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: The most powerful guy in the House is Paul McMurtry? While the Commonwealth churns, the city waits; Plus: Mo Feeney takes over, and all is well.
Paul McMurtry is the most powerful man in the House right now. That fact is due largely to the legislature’s disinclination to work at any pace that could be characterized as “speedy,” or even, “workmanlike,” or even “mildly determined.”
The House and Senate left a whole mess of bills untended to when their formal sessions expired this month. Most of the remaining said mess of bills are routine local matters that can still be pushed through to the governor – so long as there are no objections from any of the legislators who bother to show up to work on any given day. But if just one guy decides to throw the brakes on a bill, everything is F’d for everybody.
Paul McMurtry is that one guy.
He’s been derailing House sessions for two weeks now, and shows no signs of slowing down. He won’t relent until Angelo Scaccia blinks first. Scaccia won’t. So nothing gets done. And the two Reps’ colleagues are starting to get pissed.
On Thursday, the Globe detailed the McMurtry-Scaccia flap for the portion of the political world that doesn’t subscribe to State House News. McMurtry needs to get approval for a local bill granting a liquor license to a grocery store in his Westwood district. Scaccia, who reps Hyde Park, has longstanding ties to a competing supermarket, as well as to that supermarket’s former-legislator-turned-lobbyist. And so, at the behest of his grocery buddies, he has vowed to block McMurtry’s bill. McMurtry has retaliated by blocking virtually all other House business.
On Monday, the House met for just 32 minutes (enough time to entertain the Lebanese tourist minister) before McMurtry halted democracy. Thursday, business only lasted seven minutes. Court officers lazed around the chamber, surfing the Internet and reading aloud box scores from the Herald. They snapped to attention long enough to say the Pledge of Allegiance (punctuated, naturally, with a hushed but determined “Play ball!”). Thanks to the boozy grocery store death vendetta, McMurtry rose to doubt the presence of a quorum, and they were allowed to quickly return to making money for doing hardly anything at all.
These developments have left Antonio Cabral in a mood that could easily be described as “not too wicked pleased.” He’s got bills to move, and they’re not moving. Hence, the displeasure. He tried to cut McMurtry off when the Westwood Rep rose to halt Thursday’s session, and when that failed, he proceeded to get all angry and stuff.
Afterward, the press was ushered out of the House gallery, while the eight or so legislators present remained inside, talking and trying to hug it out. After a while, they emerged an announced that those efforts had, in fact, failed. The inaction shall continue.
Scaccia told State House News that he’s not blocking the Westwood bill because of any rotten lobbyist action. Rather, he said, “What I’m doing is being very loyal to them for what they have done for my community.” How does this standoff end? “Something has to give somewhere, and it ain’t going to be me.”
Paul Donato, who’s been in charge of this circus while everybody else in the state was out of the state, said after Thursday’s session that a rumored compromise between Scaccia and McMurtry had collapsed, and, “We’re going to be dealing with this for some time.”
Donato suggested the only way out of this pissing contest might involve raising the cap on grocery stores with beer and wine licenses. That way, McMurtry’s store could get a license, and so could Scaccia’s. “I’m not sure how the problem can be solved without coming up with a method for licensing supermarkets beyond the three the law allows,” he said. “It would have to be one agreement that everyone in the legislature is comfortable with, but there seems to be an alternative there that could be used as a compromise.”
Easy enough, right? All the legislature has to do now is get unanimous consent for the change – and hope that the lobbyists and interest groups who poured $13 million into a bruising fight over this very matter two years ago, uh, look the other way, or something.
Lost in this cacophony of grunting was the fact that Beacon Hill looked like Left Behind come to life this past week. Who knew that Jesus would only come for the Democrats? The loneliest place in the world: The bar at the 21st Amendment.
The McMurtry-Scaccia swordfight is symptomatic of a larger political dysfunction in the state. Home rule statutes mean that before municipal officials can sneeze, they have to ask the legislature for permission. And then they have to wait. And wait. And every so often, routine requests get caught up in these larger, decidedly nasty conflicts.
One recent example: Back in 2006, Boston wanted to let more restaurants sell booze. But the bill granting more licenses to the city got caught up in a long, drawn-out fight with Sen. Michael Morrissey over boating fees and name-calling. And freedom!
“Integral facets of city government are controlled by the Commonwealth, and they’re not always receptive to us,” argues City Council President Maureen Feeney. “Sometimes, our larger, more challenging issues are almost trivial to them. The average person assumes that the city has control over what happens in the city. That’s not necessarily the case. It’s very limiting. It makes the process so challenging – we spend years trying to get something done that we should be able to do through an ordinance. We can’t control the way things happen. Instead, we have to go hat in hand to the legislature, over and over. And no disrespect to the legislature. That’s just the way the state constitution is.”
The liquor license fight wasn’t even the most ludicrous situation Feeney has seen. For the past four sessions, the mayor and the council have been trying to lower the speed limit on some cut-through streets, but the legislature hasn’t played along. And don’t even think about trying to raise a half-cent meals tax – something the country’s other major cities can do on their own.
Feeney calls the current State House flap a, “teachable moment, an opportunity to shine a light” on the vagaries of home rule. “We’re still a step-child to government,” she says. “It’s a waste of time, energy and focus, and we’re just trying to operate the city in a responsible way.”
This past week, it hasn’t been Council President Feeney. With Mayor Menino at the DNC, it’s been Acting Mayor Feeney. So what’s it been like to run the show?
“We haven’t picked out any new curtains for the mayor’s office,” she assures us. “We like it on this side of the building.” She also invoked the words of the late city councilor Pat McDonough, who said, ‘Acting mayors do more acting than they do mayoring.'” Feeney and Menino conferred last Friday, before he flew west, but they haven’t had to confer since then.
Nothing like the Blizzard of ‘78, which stranded Mayor Kevin White in Florida, and left Council President/Acting Mayor Larry DiCara to run Boston in his absence. “Somebody had to stay and shut off the lights at the end of the day,” she says. “But, it’s been pretty ordinary. Pretty quiet. The fact that the city’s still standing speaks for itself.”