“Starting Line 2009” tackles DeLeo, State House scandals, and the bleak economy

Is new House Speaker Robert DeLeo really just "a hamburger guy", and are other members of the House no more than "sheep"? Do voters pay more attention to public pension abuses than to the state's fiscal crisis?  Last Friday, four of the state's most perceptive political jounalists talked about these and other questions at "Starting Line 2009," co-sponsored by MassINC and State House News Service.

See an edited transcript of the event here to discover how the panelists felt about the ascension of DeLeo, ethics reform (and the confusion over how exactly Dianne Wilkerson spent $60), the shrinking media resources devoted to Beacon Hill, and the continuing temptation of casinos as a way for the state to raise revenue.

"Starting Line 2009" was moderated by CommonWealth editor Bruce Mohl. The panelists were: Hillary Chabot, Boston Herald State House bureau; Craig Sandler, State House News Service general manager; Scot Lehigh, Boston Globe columnist; and Jim Braude, New England Cable News and WTKK-FM.

Among the highlights:

Hillary Chabot on the centralization of power in the state Legislature: One of the first things I remember from when I came up from the Lowell Sun — new reporter, very naïve, I guess — I talked to one of the reps about who knows what, and he said, "Well, we’ll see what the boss does." He was talking about the Speaker. The first thing I thought was, "Aren’t the people who elected you supposed to be the boss?"

Jim Braude on a gas tax hike: The only reason there hasn’t been a gas tax [hike] is there was a huge miscalculation from the Transportation Finance Commission, which came out with [an estimate of] $19 billion or $20 billion to fix and maintain roads. The finance commission released their report in October of the election year, which guaranteed that both Kerry Healey and Deval Patrick had to say they opposed the gas tax increase because they were going before the voters in a month. Deval gets elected. He is on the record saying he’s opposed to the gas tax. What’s he going to say? "I was lying to you then"? If [the estimate] had came out two months later, he would have said, "I’ll look at it." I think we would have done a gas tax already.

Scot Lehigh on the federal stimulus bill: Stimulus needn’t just be bulldozers doing capital projects. People have that misconception of it, that it always needs to focus on infrastructure. That’s not true. A dollar spent on almost anything in the economy that puts someone to work, puts money in that person’s pocket that they will spend — it doesn’t matter if that person is an artist. The money they spend is just as relevant as the money a construction guy spends in terms of stimulus.

Craig Sandler on the state's dire fiscal situation: The real problem, though, is that you can raise the gas tax and put taxes on services and put taxes on pets and do slots and maybe you’ve raised a billion dollars. Now you have $2.5 billion [in debt]. You drain the $850 million from the rainy day fund. Now you still have $1.8 billion, and it’s growing fast as people continue to lose their jobs. The remaining stratagem is deep, hurtful, painful, damaging, permanent cuts in programs and services almost everyone uses — which is going to happen, beginning now and for years to come.