Thursday, April 15, 2010

A SELLOUT Story in Amherst...

Yesterday, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed its bill to establish 2 casinos and slot parlors at the state's race tracks.  The bill passed by an overwhelming margin, practically flipping the vote on the governor's casino bill from 2008.  The House, then led by former (and indicted) Speaker Sal DiMasi, a passionate anti-casino advocate, crushed the bill 108-46.  By comparison, it passed 120-37 yesterday.

While the economy is comparatively worse off than it was in 2008 and there are some new faces in the House, the flip is nothing short of astounding.  Perhaps, what best illustrates the flip--and a huge defect in the business as usual on Beacon Hill--is the change of heart of Representative Ellen Story of Amherst.

In 2008, Story voted against expanded gambling, a vote, that considering her largely liberal constituency (her district encompasses the entire town of Amherst and the town of Granby) is unsurprising.  Largely because of the social impact of gambling, liberals, progressives, and whatnot tend to oppose any expansion of gambling even if it is at the expense of improved revenue for other social projects and education.  Therefore, they tend to reject the "voluntary tax" nature of gambling as a revenue source, perhaps also because any tax, especially those made for social good, cannot rightfully be voluntary except as executed by the democratic process.

Story's record, as broken down by a rough analysis from Project Vote Smart, is unabashedly liberal.  While this blog may find fault with the positions themselves, her consistency as evidenced by the many 100% from liberal groups is admirable.  Liberals, as much as conservatives and on some issues, particularly those that pose an immediate social harm, tend to be unremitting, unrelenting, and unapologetic for their stance.  For this reason it is all the more troubling to find that Ellen Story changed her vote and joined Speaker Robert DeLeo's effort to pass an expanded gambling bill in Massachusetts.

Perhaps Story might have been able to keep the spotlight off herself if she just ignored the cameras and press that turned to her when her vote changed.  She might have sloughed off the criticism if she had joined the monotonous, if at times effective chorus of "jobs, jobs, jobs."  Instead, she grabbed a shovel and started digging down six feet, unearthing more evidence of a legislative process on Beacon Hill gone wrong.  Story, as confirmed from two news sources, WFCR and The Daily Hampshire Gazette, admitted that she caved because she had been brought into DeLeo's inner circle and feared his ire.  Story, in the WFCR report, also noted the calls from union members, who have been led to believe they will win an employment jackpot under DeLeo's bill.  This, however, is a mere fig leaf for her concerns about falling out of DeLeo's inner circle.  She wins precious few points for honesty, but how much better would people have felt about Nixon if he said, "Yeah, I am a crook!"

As predicted by this blog and others, DeLeo, no doubt motivated to return places like his father's workplace to the way it never was, applied potent pressure, fear, and favors to many House members other than just Story to get his way.  Using populist, but hollow phrases like "blue collar recession," he blunted direct criticism aimed at him.  That does not win votes, though.  Dangling influence and power certainly does, as he did to Story over the past year.

For Story, the State House News Service (whose pages are not publicly available, but the quote can be seen on the Blue Mass Group link below) reported how the Amherst Democrat has largely been confined to the Back Benches of the Massachusetts House chamber, despite large Democratic majorities, a series of Speaker turnovers, and a tenure that stretches back to 1992.  Even more bizarre about Story's unrecognized career is her liberal bend, which would be a decided plus for a House member as opposed to the often more conservative Senate.  Indeed, the Massachusetts' legislature's website lists Story's lone committee assignment as being the "Floor Division Committee," which if there was ever a BS committee this is it.  However, that does entail the ear of the speaker as a floor leader.  Still someone willing to fall on their own ideals' sword should have made out better.

For the past eighteen years, this background position must have been acceptable to Story who still retained her vote in the House and access to State agencies, both of which would be to the benefit of her constituents.  Media reports are unclear when DeLeo brought Story into his circle, but even just being "closer" to the Speaker can mean pet projects, bills, and programs are given more attention and a greater likelihood of passage.  She is now counted among his floor leaders, and media reports go back to DeLeo Speaker election on that.  Still, that Story should sell herself out like this is both politically and perhaps morally foolish.  After eighteen years and many opportunities to sell out now, what could be worth compromising her liberal values now?  Passage of this bill will not make passing any item on the left's agenda in Massachusetts any easier.  As for retaliation for not voting for the legislation (a sorry, but likely tool DeLeo also employed) Story would have little to fear.  She might lose his ear, but she lacks any other committee assignments to lose, and as the representative for the host community of the flagship campus of the commonwealth's public university, no punishment could be doled out without roiling residents from throughout the commonwealth.  In fact, should the residents of Amherst and Granby stick to their own values, if it is not too late, a primary challenge could upend Story.  If defeated we may ask, "It was a nice few months on the inside, wasn't it Ellen?"

Story's change of heart, however, points to a greater problem with Beacon Hill.  Unlike in Washington where, for better or worse, committee chairs are mostly based on seniority, in both houses of the Massachusetts General Court chairs (and to a lesser extent any seat on a committee) are essentially doled out to supporters of the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate.  It forms a two-way relationship between the chamber's leader and the members.  The leaders get their positions--and keep it--in exchange for committee chairs (and their stipends) to members.  However, it is often more one-sided than it seems.  A dissident member is easily punished and his chair pulled out from behind him.  It takes a significant cadre of disgruntled members to challenge a leader without any repercussions.  The leader meanwhile can simply demand support or use his or her position to buy it, particularly when the issue is of utmost importance to them such as on the issue of gay marriage for Senate President Therese Murray or the casino bill (and it race track provisions) for DeLeo.

This swing with the leader is evidenced by the flip-flop between the 2008 and 2010 casino bills.  Each time, the vote went--overwhelming--in the direction the Speaker desired.  As such we can easily accuse DiMasi of the same tactics DeLeo has employed.  Had neither man put the full weight of their office on members, it is impossible to know what the results of a casino vote would look like.

The impact of this member-leader relationship spreads far further than just slots and casinos.  The Democrats, despite chronic factionalism in their caucus, maintain a super majority in each chamber.  Therefore when something like the budget, for example, comes up, a concerted effort is made to pass it along party lines, which means by a super-majority.  Every year, a handful of Democrats will join the Republicans in voting on the final budget, but most will not do so out of fear of voting against the annual baby of their chamber's leadership.  As a result, the governor's line-item veto is essentially worthless, regardless of the executive's political party, as member are called upon again by their leaders to bring back to life the stricken elements of the fiduciary baby they originally birthed.  Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, found that the General Court was not generally supportive of his cuts, except out of necessity as when revenues crashed.

The only way to correct this atrocious mockery of the Massachusetts' political process would be either overhaul how the legislature divvies up committee seats and chairs or give the GOP a veto-sustaining minority.  The latter is problematic because it may do nothing to assist a Democratic governor like Patrick who at times has trouble finding allies in either party.  Moreover, even in a post-Scott Brown Massachusetts (whose own golden image is quickly tarnishing), there is no guarantee even an increase in GOP seats modest enough to sustain vetoes will happen.  The alternatives is to reform the committee process, but how?  

Washington's model offers some solutions, but it too is rife with problems.  Doling seats out by seniority in Boston would be even worse than it is in Washington since so many state reps and senators stick around in perpetuity.  True, that happens wholesale in Washington, but DC politicians again for better and for worse, can build up experience and clout that can, though not always, benefit the country at large.  Additionally, although state politicians are not directly responsible to municipal leaders, their decisions more directly impact how local communities operate than federal lawmakers.  If seniority dictated committee assignments in Massachusetts, an aging incumbent-bound politician from Boston could write laws, practically with impunity, that only benefit his city.  That is laws that benefit Boston at the expense of the state more than they already do.

However, using a method other than cronyism to chair committees does have its benefits.  Although not always for the better, committee chairs on Capitol Hill can ignore or even spit in the face of House and Senate leaders if the leadership's bill in their committee rubs them the wrong way.  Conversely, when a chairperson becomes too much of a problem, there is a way out.  Either they can be compelled to step down as happened to Charles Rangel recently or in extraordinary circumstances the chamber can vote (as it technically can on Beacon Hill, but seldom would ever need to) to pluck a bill from committee.  Partisan leadership still holds sway over the calendar and what votes are coming up, but despite what some emphatically claim on Capitol Hill neither House nor the Senate is wholly beholden to Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Back in Massachusetts, despite unsettling the gods of democracy here, DeLeo's bill is far from a done deal.  Senate President Therese Murray has announced that her chamber will construct their own bill from the ground up.  Ironically, the man who represents Amherst in the Senate, Stanley Rosenberg, will be her point man on the issue.  For the record, although Rosenberg has a record equally liberal as Story's, his district is obvious much larger and includes some townier, if not more conservative areas tempering his record with realism and maybe cynicism.  Murray and Rosenberg promise public hearings, whereas DeLeo sternly prohibited them.  Although Murray ignored questions about slot parlors, which she has previously opposes, it is all but certain that the Senate bill will clash with the House bill in key ways.  Maybe that is what Murray wants.  While she may support casinos--as she suspects the public does-- it is not the friendliest election year issue in a year when Democrats are slated to sustain some, if not numerous losses.  This is made all the more complicated since both the slots-as-crusade DeLeo and President Murray have received contributions from the gaming industry.

For the record, here is a sampling of the area votes from the Springfield area on the casino bill.  A full list can be seen here.  Voting Yes for Expanded Gambling: Puppolo, Coakley-Rivera, Wagner, Kane, Humason, Sandlin, Welch, Kulik, Kocot, Story, Scibak.  Voting No: Ashe, Curran, Smola.  Notable Fact: Many Boston City Reps voted "No."  Maybe not touched by DeLeo's childhood memories of Suffolk Downs and its easy T access to some of the state's poorest residents in Boston/Cambridge.

Ellen Story's role in the wider drama is relatively small, but it does serve to show what has become of Beacon Hill and the machinations that run our state government.  This is only the tip of the iceberg and decades of mismanagement in the General Court may be attributed to this among other problems.  But it is sad when in these particularly trying times, when people are losing faith in everything, that a seeming idealist fails to stand firm for the sake of her own ego.  Thanks, Ellen.

*Story and Rosenberg photos from Massachusetts Legislature website.  All other photos © Western Mass Politics and Insight

No comments: