Weekly Roundup – Train in Vain?

Recap and analysis of the week in state government

JUNE 3, 2022…..A month and a half ago, it sounded as if it was basically a done deal.

“We’re ready to yell out ‘all aboard!’ in the western part of the state to go east,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said April 26 after a meeting in which he, Gov. Charlie Baker, Congressman Richard Neal and nearly every state legislator from western Mass. came to an agreement to make the long-awaited extension of passenger rail service west of Worcester to Springfield and Pittsfield a reality.

The agreement that Neal and Baker described at Springfield’s Union Station (or, as Sarno called it, “The House That Neal Built”) hinged on the Legislature adding language to a bill that Baker had filed in March that would start setting up a new rail authority to oversee East-West Rail.

“I think if that happens, that certainly expedites things,” Neal said.

Despite their decades working in and around legislative bodies, it was notable that not one person who spoke about the agreement at the April 26 press conference had served in the Great and General Court, where agreements have a way of grinding to a stand-still over extraneous issues and almost nothing is as simple as it first seems.

When the $9.7 billion infrastructure bond bill that was anointed as the legislative vehicle for the new rail authority came before the Bonding Committee this week, the fact that East-West Rail remains unaddressed in the bill was the elephant in the room and the Democrats in charge of the panel would not say what — if anything — they’ll do by the end of July to carry out an agreement they weren’t directly part of.

“I don’t know the answer to that yet,” Rep. Danielle Gregoire told the News Service when asked if the Bonding Committee will add the new rail agency framework or dedicated East-West Rail funding to the bill. She didn’t rule it out though, saying, “everything’s on the table at this point.”

If there is going to be a new rail authority in Massachusetts, maybe don’t let it take advice about safety from the MBTA. The incident-prone agency is trying to figure out how two Green Line trolleys crashed into each other and derailed Wednesday night all while federal safety regulators who are already “extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues” at the T are watching over its shoulder.

The Legislature is on its own biennial collision course with July 31, typically the end of serious lawmaking for the two-year session as the political world shifts into campaign mode.

“We have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it,” Gregoire said this week.

She was talking specifically about work on the infrastructure bond bill, but her words are essentially the mantra of Beacon Hill lawmakers now that the their 19-month window of opportunity is closing.

The only thing that the Legislature is really required to do is finalize a budget. The House and Senate got the gang back together this week, reappointing the same six lawmakers who knitted the current year’s compromise budget to do the same for the budget year that starts July 1.

Reps. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston, Ann-Margaret Ferrante of Gloucester and Todd Smola of Warren, and Sens. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, Cindy Friedman of Arlington and Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth will meet virtually Wednesday to start the talks that are expected to lead, some time by the end of July, to a compromise budget that will spend about $50 billion.

One of their first orders of business could be to update the expected revenue base that each chamber built its spending plan on. Word came Friday from the Department of Revenue that fiscal year 2022 tax collections are at least about $2 billion ahead of expectations with one month left and have already surpassed next year’s consensus revenue estimate of $36.915 billion that was announced in January.

Unless the budget negotiators work much faster than has been their custom, the tan that Baker picked up in San Diego this week will likely have faded by the time a budget hits his desk. The Boston Celtics could be the NBA champions by then, too.

“Watched the @celtics close out the @warriors in Game 1 of the @NBA Finals on my phone with Governor @CharlieBakerMA standing on the beach at the @CNN #LifeItself event,” Harvard professor David Liu, who also spoke at the Life Itself conference this week, tweeted Friday morning following the Celtics’ 120-108 win over Golden State.

The conference promised “mind-blowing talks and entertainment” and that the exclusive list of attendees will “create unexpected connections and new long lasting, productive business relationships and friendships” at the ritzy Hotel Del Coronado beach resort. Conference media partner CNN’s coverage of the event includes pieces on a “ghost heart” made out of “the scaffolding of a pig’s heart infused with human stem cells,” talks on preparing for the next pandemic, and 99-year-old producer Norman Lear’s thoughts on aging.

There is no coverage of Baker’s speech, which was said to be part of a segment on the COVID-19 pandemic, but Liu offered one tantalizing comment that could cast light on the outgoing governor’s future plans.

Along with a photo of himself with the Green Team governor, Liu also posted, “Earlier, Gov. Baker noted he would be ‘in the picture’ in the 2024 election.” (“I am not, nor will I ever be — OK? My wife is standing right back there and she will be the first to vouch — a candidate for national office,” Baker said in July 2015.)

LOOSE ENDS: Attorney General Maura Healey agreed to a settlement that will pay out $14 million to 31,000 defendants who had criminal convictions vacated in the wake of the massive state drug lab scandal of the last decade … The MassGOP’s eyebrow-raising release of detailed delegate voting information shed light on the state of the primary between Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty … In a reversal of the usual dynamic, some police officers are uncomfortable with questions being asked of them … Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy retires from the flagship next June after more than a decade and Amesbury Rep. Jim Kelcourse could be the latest representative to flee the House, this time for the Parole Board.

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