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Massachusetts lawmakers are spending less time than ever writing and debating new laws. And, in response, citizens and interest groups in Massachusetts are increasingly turning to the ballot to make policy -- either as a direct appeal to voters, or as a cudgel for beating action out of a slow-moving Legislature.

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There's nothing like the threat of a bit of direct democracy to get the slow-going wheels of representative democracy turning.

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Every weekday, for the next month or two, former state Probation Department boss John O'Brien will walk into the federal courthouse in South Boston and listen as prosecutors try to send him to prison. There was a time not too long ago when it looked as if O'Brien would have the company of several Beacon Hill lawmakers at his defendant's table. The Lowell Sun reported two years ago that the federal investigation into rigged hiring at Probation was expected to ensnare four sitting state lawmakers. Lawmaker indictments never materialized. O'Brien's only co-defendants are a pair of former aides.

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Richard Cook is a fisherman who wants to build an oyster farm in Mashpee. His farm is in danger, not because he can't get the right permits, which he can, but because he's unwittingly stumbled into a legislative street fight. Cook's oyster farm is up against a familiar Beacon Hill cocktail: wealthy people with powerful friends, hidden interests, and a legislative process that rewards loyalty to leadership and quashes debate.

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First-term senators are getting quite a bit of media attention, courtesy of the latest parlor game, "Is Elizabeth Warren running for president?" All the senior senator from Massachusetts had to do was publish a folksy memoir to generate loads of speculation about her designs, or lack of them, on the 2016 presidential race.

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Boston magazine's David Bernstein did journalism a favor this week. The web was aflame over a Massachusetts bill that purported to forbid a person seeking a divorce from having sex in his or her home.

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It's been a generation or two since the GOP in Massachusetts - the so-called Saltonstall, Sargent, and Lodge Republicans who would now be termed RINOs on the national stage - was more than an afterthought in state politics.

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Lawmakers on Beacon Hill looked like they got off easy in federal prosecutors' investigation into corruption at the state Probation Department. But as former probation boss John O'Brien heads to trial this spring, it's increasingly looking like there will be plenty of misery and embarrassment to go around. A hearing at the federal courthouse yesterday made it clear that both sides in the O'Brien case plan on using O'Brien's probation trial to put Beacon Hill on trial, even without any lawmakers sitting at the defense table.

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The Massachusetts House expelled Rep. Carlos Henriquez of Boston on Thursday because the representatives couldn't tolerate having a colleague who was serving time in jail for assault and battery against his girlfriend.

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What do Massachusetts and Alabama have in common? They both are lousy at using the best tools available to craft state budgets. That news may come as a shock to Bay State policymakers who like to trot out the "We're Number 1" banner at every opportunity.

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Gov. Deval Patrick pronounced the state of the Commonwealth “strong,” but the state of the Department of Children and Families is anything but. Patrick won’t be able to revel in the afterglow of his final address for long: The political fallout of from the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver has only just begun.

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Despite comfortable perches on Beacon Hill, state lawmakers are fleeing the Legislature at a fast clip. Leading the outmigration are several top lieutenants to House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

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Most people who followed the day-to-day coverage of the trial of state Rep. Carlos Henriquez were confused. Katherine Gonsalves, the college student who accused Henriquez of hitting her when she refused to have sex, told a story that was often inconsistent. Henriquez never took the stand to offer his version of what happened. The jury kept coming back to Judge Michele Hogan with questions, prompting her to say at one point that the jury members seemed frustrated.

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State Sen. Katherine Clark’s victory in the crowded Democratic primary field almost assuredly fast tracks her to Washington, DC, just in time to cope with the fallout from the creep of the planet’s most powerful economy toward economic Armageddon.

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Former Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez insists his conversion from staunchly defending an absolute  Second Amendment right to bear arms to now supporting an assault weapons ban and limiting magazine sizes is a matter of personal conscience separate from any decision to run for office again.

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House Speaker Robert DeLeo has long denied being a target of the federal investigation into the state’s corrupt probation department. But it’s hard to look at DeLeo’s most recent campaign disclosures without seeing an intense level of scrutiny on the feds’ part.

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The state’s Democrats kicked off their gubernatorial hunt last week with a convention in Lowell. The Republican answer came more quietly, in the form of a meeting and conference call among Charlie Baker, Scott Brown, Bill Weld, and Ron Kaufman.

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John Walsh is stepping down this fall as the head of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and taking the reins of Gov. Deval Patrick’s political action committee, Together PAC.

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If you’re confused about the tax standoff on Beacon Hill, you’re not alone. Gov. Deval Patrick is going to the mat with legislative leaders over the mere possibility that transportation revenues might come up short four years from now, long after he is gone.

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Warm weather is finally here and so begins the season for summer barbeques, long days on the beach, warm evening strolls -- and Lyme disease. When it comes to the seasonal tick-borne disease first identified in Lyme, Connecticut, in the mid-1970s, Massachusetts remains one of the most heavily impacted states. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people will develop Lyme disease in Massachusetts this year.

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The Massachusetts Senate stepped gingerly into the digital age last week. And when the chamber arrived in the future, or at least a version of the future from several years ago, it was greeted, by the Herald editorial page, with impatience and sarcastic quotation marks.

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It’s the time of year – actually, every other year – that the haughty process of setting agendas is at the forefront. It’s a period of high-mindedness, hope, promise, and optimism. Then, of course, that little hurdle known as reality takes hold and everything comes to a screeching halt.

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In the end, with Sal DiMasi, it all comes back to Dunkin’ Donuts.

William Cintolo, the lawyer who unsuccessfully defended former House Speaker Sal DiMasi against federal corruption charges, is a big fan of the Dunkin’ Donuts legal theory. He’s such a big fan, in fact, that he uncorked it twice during DiMasi’s federal trial last year. Now, as Cintolo works to free DiMasi from prison, Dunkin’ is all over the appeal.

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Health care reform in Massachusetts has never been just about Massachusetts. It wasn’t when Mitt Romney, Robert Travaglini and Sal DiMasi pushed through a blueprint for national universal health care, or when the White House cribbed Romney’s plan and ran with it. The Massachusetts model has always been a proving ground for something bigger -- Romney even said as much, until he didn’t.

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If the end of the General Court’s 187th session precipitated a chaotic though predictable scramble to move the session’s most consequential bills, it was an even more challenging time for Gov. Deval Patrick.

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Two years ago, the Legislature slept on a ticking clock and paid the price. Lawmakers put off priority legislation, their prized casino bill, until the last possible moment, as is their wont, and when a standoff with the governor arose, they’d run out of time to act. House leadership lashed out at the governor, but it was lawmakers’ own inability to act before an eleventh-hour deadline that buried the bill they were pushing. Having the votes to overturn a veto doesn’t mean anything, if you’ve run out of time to vote.

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Former House speaker Sal DiMasi’s tragic story of failing to get prompt treatment from prison officials for tongue cancer is touching off a wave of sympathy, but it’s unclear whether the shift in public sentiment will get him better treatment or an earlier release.

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When in doubt, study is the default strategy of Massachusetts lawmakers when it comes to dealing with prickly issues like transportation finance.

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This is the way the Legislature wanted it.

If Tim Cahill had launched a quixotic gubernatorial run in 2006, and in the middle of this quixotic run, had he unleashed a $1.5 million television ad campaign, he would not be in the position he’s in right now, which is facing hard jail time and tens of thousands of dollars in criminal fines. Back in 2006, anyone accused of overstepping state ethics laws faced civil sanctions; by 2010, ethics violations were criminal offenses.

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“Too complicated, too big.”

Those were the words the Tax Expenditure Commission used to describe the tangle of tax breaks that amount to over $26 billion, or more in foregone tax revenue than the state takes in each year, according to the State House News Service. The commission was convened to study the financial impact of the credits and exemptions, and is expected to release a final report next month.

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It’s all over, including the shouting. If some MBTA riders actually thought that negative testimonies at public hearings were going to prevent fare increases and service cuts, now they know better. On the same day as its last public meeting in Allston-Brighton, the authority released an “Open Letter to Our Customers” announcing that hikes and cutbacks, like the next subway train, are arriving.

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The mystery woman who was at the center of a House chamber incident with a Braintree lawmaker last year says she is going to challenge Rep. David Torrisi of North Andover in the Democratic primary this fall.

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Here’s how Charley Murphy rings out the old year, and rings in the new: The calendar turns, and the ambitious Burlington Democrat gets knocked down another rung in the House power structure.

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Two Las Vegas gambling powerhouses, MGM Resorts and Boyd Gaming, are betting that Congress will legalize online poker -- a development that could have deep ramifications for the casino gambling bill currently pending on Beacon Hill.

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Bitter enemies are suddenly finding common ground on Beacon Hill.

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It’s hard to know what the right metaphor is to capture all the absurd gyrations and policymaking-on-the-run that have characterized the mad dash to casinos and slots.  Sometimes it seems a balloon is the right image, with every effort to squeeze some sense into this thing merely causing another area of the casino balloon to bulge toward the breaking point.  Or maybe it’s the sweater metaphor, where each tug at a knot in the knitting only unravels things a little more.

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The main takeaway from Tuesday’s Special Joint Committee on Redistricting  announce-a-palooza was the explosion of new majority-minority voting districts, 10 for the House map, bringing the total to 20, and a new Senate district for Springfield, for a total of 3 majority-minority districts on the Senate map.

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What if they held an election and nobody came? It darn near happened in Brockton this week when only 4.7 percent of voters turned out for the city’s preliminary election. Continue Reading
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The Massachusetts Legislature continued to put fiscal concerns ahead of political loyalties as the Senate voted 24-10 for a bill that would make new public employees work longer for less benefits.

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As far as inevitable developments go, Beacon Hill’s consensus proposal to license three resort casinos and one slot parlor sure has a lot of questions hanging over it.

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Tomorrow night’s Megabucks jackpot is an estimated $4.3 million. If you’re under 40 and not feeling particularly lucky but still like the sound of that much money, you could run for state representative and then get an appointment as a clerk-magistrate. If you keep the $110,000-a-year job until you’re 80 – which is not hard to do – you would make at least $4.4 million if the Legislature never passes another raise for you.

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Instead of coming to grips with the changing face of America, the Republican Party appears to be dead set on alienating every minority group in the country. Mother Jones writer Tim Murphy examines how the Republican Party has managed to put off Muslim Americans, who flocked to the GOP in 2000.

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On the same day Tim Pawlenty made his presidential candidacy official, Mitch Daniels said he was out of the race. Daniels was polling right next to Pawlenty – low-single digits nationally, and in New Hampshire. Daniels’s retreat engendered much wailing and gnashing of teeth, while Pawlenty’s official announcement was greeted by a collective shrug. As they gazed at the door, waiting for Chris Christie to waltz in, the wailing, teeth-gnashing Republican Party faithful gave themselves a halfhearted pep talk. That reaction, as much as anything else, should sum up the prospects of the closest thing Mitt Romney has to a serious challenger from within the traditional (i.e. non-Palin) wing of the GOP.

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US Rep. Michele Bachmann is contemplating tossing her hat in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination. With Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee out, the Minnesota Republican says her telephone is ringing off the hook, money is pouring in, and Facebook is “lit up” with people clamoring that she run.

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The Boston Globe yesterday wrote another chapter in the ongoing saga that chronicles failures at the MBTA, this time regarding the T’s relationship to Mass Bay Commuter Rail, the company that manages the commuter rail that serves 134,000 people daily. A three-month Globe investigation found that the T approved a number of contract changes that essentially rewarded the company for running trains on time and minimized financial penalties when it did not. The result: “millions in bonuses for “on-time performance’ even when the system’s overall service is lousy.”

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What’s next, Howie Carr sporting a bowtie? Frank Phillips and Brian Mooney acknowledging their Herald roots? The Inside Track finding something interesting in the Boring Broadsheet? The Globe writing a follow-up story and giving the Herald credit?

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The most popular governor in the North is from the South.  

There was lots of carping in 2009 when Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor only got a measly $112 million in high-speed rail funds. But Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to send back more than $2 billion originally destined for an Orlando-Tampa link was a game-changer. He opened the way for the Obama administration to kiss and make up with Northeast intercity rail supporters.

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He's now made it official: former Boston city councilor Michael Flaherty wants his old job back. Actually, he doesn't really want his old job at all. He wants the job that he had to give up his old job in order to pursue. But he figures he needs his old job in order to again take a shot at the new job he really wants. Continue Reading
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“We don’t need to spike the football,” President Obama said in his decision to not release photographs of Osama bin Laden’s dead body. “That’s not who we are.”

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As much of America is fixated on a wedding in the royal family -- except, believe it or not, viewers of Fox 25 -- that harkens back to the time when we were colonists, yet another vestige of long ago is making its voice heard in our own backyard.

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According to a New York Times/CBS poll released last week, 25 percent of adults surveyed believe that President Obama was not born in the US. Among Republicans, the figure soars to 45 percent.

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With Earth Day on the horizon, Phil Primack, a CommonWealth contributing writer, turned on the wayback machine, lamenting in a recent Boston Globe Magazine column that the passion that marked Boston’ first Earth Day has faded. Instead of 1970-style protests, such as a “die-in” at Logan Airport to protest supersonic jets, people today gravitate toward “product-placement bonanza[s] of ‘green living’ festivals, cleanup campaigns, and special events.” Continue Reading
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Standard & Poor’s tried to goose Washington into tackling its financial problems yesterday. The ratings agency lowered its outlook on government debt, effectively saying that unless Congress and the White House can agree to raise the country’s debt ceiling and cut the deficit, the federal government’s AAA credit rating is history.

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Who blinked? Who will blink? And is blinking overrated?
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Another hearing, another round of mea culpas from Bay State transportation officials. This past winter’s commuter rail problems set the stage for Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan to put a new label on problems facing the debt-ridden sector when he told the Transportation Committee on Tuesday that the state’s transportation assets were “undercapitalized” to the tune of about $1 billion.
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As the Boston Herald hits the midway point in its tour through Gov. Deval Patrick’s wobbly early years in office, the governor is showing he’s now a far different politician than he was at the start of his first term.

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As everyone knows, slot machines and casino gambling haven’t been approved by the Massachusetts Legislature. But what most people don’t know is that devices that closely resemble slot machines have been popping up in small shops across the state for the past few years, sidestepping the legal ban by masquerading as sweepstakes.

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A new study on schooling in America, a new round of charges and counter-charges about overblown claims of charter school success, skewed data sets, and incomplete analyses. Put it all together and it's no wonder that research on what's happening in US schools often generates more heat than light.

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The Legislature’s redistricting road show debuted in Springfield last weekend, and the good people of western Mass. hit ‘em with everything they had. Continue Reading
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Robert Groves, the director of the US Census Bureau, is a man in demand. While state demographers mull over why people are fleeing Lincoln, Stockbridge, and Provincetown, advertisers are trying to make sense of what new Census data mean for their big picture: marketing products and services to American consumers.

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The NCAA men's basketball tournament carries the right nickname, but not because of the excitement it generates. The madness is the big-money pursuit of top basketball talent by colleges and universities where education takes a back seat to victory on the court. Globe columnist Derrick Jackson has made a mission of the issue – with a particular focus on black players, whose graduation rates badly lag behind their white counterparts. His Saturday column was the latest installment, and Jackson is hoping some attention to the problem at very high places might make a difference.

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Who could have guessed the third week in March would be a bad one for alcohol sales in Boston?

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President Obama has turned the favored sports axiom on its ear by showing the best offense is not a good defense but actually no defense.

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Cheeseheads of the world, unite!  In these times of fiscal stress, Gov. Scott Walker would probably be just another unknown Midwestern state executive had he taken aim at public employee wages and benefits alone. Instead, he went for the whole enchilada, collective bargaining rights. (That is, his proposal would allow collective bargaining for  pay increases only, and only those that are pegged to the consumer price index.)

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Now that nearly everyone in Massachusetts has health insurance, Gov. Deval Patrick is filing legislation to rein in its cost. It’s one of those big, complicated policy stories that few in the media do well anymore. Continue Reading
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott decided on Wednesday that he couldn’t be bothered to use the $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail stimulus funds to build a link from Orlando to Tampa. His explanation: anemic ridership projections and the potential for cost overruns made the project too much of a risk. But Tampa officials say the governor didn’t even wait for a state transportation department to finish its ridership study.

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Right-wing budget hawks in Congress could hold the planned Green Line extension hostage. That’s the terrifying vision state transportation secretary Jeff Mullan raised yesterday. Amid a day filled with talk of weather-driven delays and tchotchke sales, Mullan pronounced himself “nervous” that budget-slashing Congressional Republicans might try to scuttle the federal funding the MBTA needs to extend the rapid-transit line from Lechmere to Somerville.

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With four major storms under the region’s collective belt and area snowfall totals poised to break the Shaq-o-meter, state lawmakers and municipal officials are bringing increased attention to snow removal infractions.

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Everyone knows the annual unveiling of House 1, the governor’s budget message to the Legislature, is just the first step in the six-month marathon that will likely conclude late in the evening on June 30. But Gov. Deval Patrick’s $30.5 billion budget plan still opens the door for some questions to be answered, such as: How the heck are you going to do that? Are you serious about that? How do you figure that adds up? And the most obvious: Does any of this stand a chance?

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The national news media has finally discovered that most states are bleeding a lot of red ink. Washington has so far rebuffed calls for bailouts. But California state treasurer Bill Lockyer isn’t worried about the Golden State or any other state going bankrupt.

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Today, former Boston city councilor Chuck Turner learns whether he’ll be going to jail for taking a $1,000 bribe, and then mouthing off to the prosecutors trying to punish him for that act. If there’s one person who should be perspiring more heavily than Turner today, it’s former House speaker Sal DiMasi.

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While yesterday's front-page Globe Spotlight Team report has prompted no immediate calls for his ouster, it hardly seems out of bounds at this point to raise the question of whether Robert DeLeo is really the right guy to restore integrity and public confidence in the House of Representatives, whose already shaky standing with the public has only fallen farther in the wake of the Probation Department scandal. Continue Reading
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The horrific shooting that took place Saturday morning in a Tucson parking lot has set off wide-ranging debate on everything from the toxic tone of political discourse in the country to gun laws so lax that a deranged loner was able to able to walk in a purchase a semi-automatic handgun a little more than month before unleashing his fury at US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others.

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It couldn’t be termed a constitutional crisis but the decision by the new Republican-controlled House to read the Constitution into the Congressional Record was as much hysterical as historical. Continue Reading
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By Bruce Mohl

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers today called on the Parole Board to put off any more hearings until a report is completed on the parole of Dominic Cinelli, who allegedly gunned down a Woburn policeman last month during a botched robbery. Patrick administration officials said the hearings will go on but no parole decisions will be made until a full review of the Cinelli case is completed.

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Glamour hasn’t gone out of style during the Great Recession. It’s just gone quiet as Jaguar dealers and wealth management gurus see their customers making more prudent purchases. But business owners serving a less privileged clientele have different stories to tell.

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Massachusetts is leading the way into a new Guilded Age. The Bay State has one of the largest income gaps between the rich and the poor in the country. The first installment of a two-part report in the Worcester Business Journal details how this yawning divide has affected business in Central Massachusetts.

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Another week, another round of head-scratching and hand-wringing over just who Scott Brown (Wrentham resident, truck owner, and current occupant of the People’s Seat in the US Senate) really is.

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Real estate helped sink the American economy, but real estate can bring it back. However, only if policymakers and developers keep two of the country's largest demographic groups in mind.

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Last week Gov. Deval Patrick said that he wanted to facilitate undocumented immigrants’ access to college and drivers’ licenses in his overall strategy to expand opportunities for legal and illegal immigrants. Continue Reading
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The Cambridge City Council fired up its version of the Wayback Machine last night and transported us all the way back to the dark days of early 2009. At the time, the economy was a wreck, unemployment was sky-high, and everybody knew exactly whom to blame for the mess: bankers. Thus, protests raged on Wall Street, and mobs piled into buses and spit venom at AIG execs. Even the president tossed around words like “outrage.” Continue Reading
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