As Senate Democrats padded into Terry Murray's ornate third floor office on Thursday, the agenda before them seemed light and easy.
There would be discussion of votes to screen infants for heart defects, to require coaches to be trained in CPR and to establish a fund for financial literacy programs to be paid for through voluntary contributions on tax returns. Check, check and check.
Then the teacher got up and asked for a show of hands. Senate President Therese Murray wanted to know how her fellow Democrats felt about taking up a minimum wage increase before the winter recess next week. She didn't tell them how high she wanted to raise it, or what else might be included in the bill. Still, she might as well have asked them if they wanted to play hooky and take a field trip to the Franklin Park Zoo. In the increasingly left-leaning Senate, the answer was yes.
It may have been a long time in the making, but Murray's November surprise caught many lawmakers in the building and interests outside of it off guard, not to mention her staff. There would be no press conference, no carefully crafted release or fact sheet. Within hours, Sen. Stephen Brewer had polled a bill out of his committee raising the minimum wage by $3 to $11 an hour over the next three years, and indexing future increases to inflation.
"The committee had a hearing on this a long time ago. We've been waiting. The members didn't want to wait any more," Murray said, unmoved by National Federation of Small Businesses State Director Bill Vernon's excoriation of the bill as "dangerous" for the economy and a circumvention of the committee process.
Vernon had reason to be peeved. He had met just hours before with House Labor Committee Chairman Tom Conroy about what he thought would become a more balanced bill produced in cooperation with Senate committee members that included unemployment insurance reforms. It still might be, if House Speaker Robert DeLeo gets his way.
Minimum Age increase battle begins
Murray, in a phone call with DeLeo Thursday, promised the speaker she would take up UI reform separately early next year. But as if on cue, Murray's fast-tracking of a minimum wage hike that almost certainly will not be addressed by the House until 2014 led to kicked-up speculation over whether the short-term president will be around long enough to make good on that pledge.
Central to the opposition to a minimum wage hike is the belief among business leaders and fiscal conservatives that the sluggish economy can ill afford another business cost.
Experts with the New England Economic Project said this week that while the Greater Boston area has more than recovered the jobs lost during the last recession, it has been a "bright spot" in the region's economy that won't see broader pre-recession employment levels until 2014. The unemployment rate in New England is not expected to fall below 6 percent until 2016, the economist said.
The economic narrative parlayed perfectly into a campaign video Treasurer Steven Grossman would release a day later, claiming that if Charles Dickens came to Massachusetts to write a book in 2013, he would title it "A Tale of Two Commonwealths."
Governor's race campaign bumps
The 2014 gubernatorial campaign so far has been free of hand-to-hand combat, despite the opening Attorney General Martha Coakley gifted her opponents with her campaign finance troubles.
While Grossman played up his business experience, Coakley went before the health care industry this week to retell a personal story of her own, more specifically the story of her brother who battled depression and ultimately committed suicide at 33. Coakley said the need for mental health services has never been greater.
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey, who will be at the center of whatever does or doesn't get done next week before the winter break, had a truly McCarveresque forecast of the week to come as negotiations began on welfare reform and the Transportation Committee teed up a $12.1 billion borrowing bill to fund projects like the South Coast Rail, South Station expansion, and Green Line extensions.
"It remains to be seen honestly. We're going to see what we can do. We'll know more on Monday or Tuesday," Dempsey said Friday.
Gaming in state approaches the endgame
Others who will know more come Tuesday include the executives at Foxwoods and their Crossroads Massachusetts casino partners. The Gaming Commission gave Foxwoods a conditional suitability approval to hold a casino license in Massachusetts on Friday, days before voters weigh in on the gambling resort proposed for Milford on Tuesday. Foxwoods and its partners - known as Crossroads Massachusetts - had a rocky showing during their suitability hearing this week, with major concerns raised about the group's lack of financing to date.
Background investigators who sunk Caesars and complicated Plainridge's bid for a slot parlor said they could not make a recommendation to the commission without first knowing who would pony up the 55 percent equity share in the casino - a sweepstakes now down to two confidential players. The Gaming Commission's tentative yes requires Crossroads to identify its financial backers before Dec. 31 and give the commission ample notice to review any accompanying changes to its management structure.
Aquinnah, Mashpee Wampanoag angst
The three casino licenses may still be up for grabs, but the Wampanoag of Gay Head say they don't need a license to build a small-scale gaming parlor on Martha's Vineyard. The tribe announced it would build a temporary slots, bingo and poker hall on tribal land in Aquinnah after receiving a legal analysis from the National Indian Gaming Commission knocking down the state's rationale for refusing to negotiate a gaming compact with the tribe.
Though the letter from the feds gave the Aquinnah tribe ammunition by supporting its claim that it has tribal gaming rights on the island, Gov. Deval Patrick and his administration did not back down from their contention that the tribe forfeited those rights in a 1980s land settlement with the state, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does not negate that agreement.
Patrick, who disclosed this week that he wouldn't vote for a casino in his western Massachusetts hometown of Richmond if one were proposed there, signed a compact Friday with the Mashpee Wampanoag, which plans to build a casino in Taunton if it can obtain federal land in trust approvals.
At this point, the fate of gaming on Martha's Vineyard appears locked in a stalemate, and most likely headed for litigation. As Rep. Joe Wagner put it: "For any and every action, there may subsequently be a reaction, and I don't want to speak to the numerous possibilities I think are associated with the many actions and reactions that are possible."
STORY OF THE WEEK: Senate President Therese Murray threw a live grenade into the waning days of the 2013 legislative calendar with an $11 minimum wage proposal that would make jobs at a new Vineyard tribal casino all the more attractive.