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Lame Ducks

TAKING SIDES

THE WALLS of the chambers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives are lined with paintings depicting the proudest moments in the formation of this state's government, and in the role the state played in creating the federal government. Pilgrim fathers, colonial governors and leaders of the Revolution peer down from their stately poses onto the 160 polished wooden desks. The artworks serve mainly to commemorate the honorable men whose ideals and competence shaped a two-century legacy. But sometimes they provide a humbling contrast with the often politically less-principled actions of their modern-day successors.

This week has been one of those times. The state legislators convened for their lame-duck session Monday, and they quickly demonstrated their instinct for self-interest and their aversion to bold political action.

In its first afternoon session, the Senate skipped a spate of important social legislation and appropriations matters. The only major substantive action it took was to pass a bill allocating pay raises for state legislators and other state officials.

While the bill itself seemed justified, the timing was suspect. The legislation passed the House late last spring, but as the general election approached, the senators dragged their feet. Yet in their first meeting after the election, they took less than an hour to pass the measure.

While the Senate started off this final two-month stretch playing hide-and-seek with the electorate, the House began by pandering to one of the voters' biggest fears and lowest instincts. Last Tuesday, Massachusetts voters approved by a three-to-two margin a referendum making the death penalty constitutional in the Commonwealth. One week later the representatives spent one afternoon on the matter, and passed the enabling legislation allowing executions. Numerous legislative hearings have been held over the past year, and opponents to capital punishment have dominated the testimony each time, providing multiple studies refuting its effectiveness as a deterrent and the inequity with which it is usually applied. Proponents have either stayed away from these useful evaluative sessions or have only presented emotional anecdotal evidence. This week, House Speaker Thomas W. McGee announced that prolonged debate was unnecessary because everyone had already decided, further demonstrating death-penalty supporters' closed-mindedness on the matter. The decision to pass this dangerous placebo, rather than seeking new ways of combating crime, shows a concern more for scoring political points with the constituents than for serving their actual needs.

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This weak-kneed politicizing was evident even in an otherwise praiseworthy act of the Senate. Monday night, the upper house approved a bill increasing financial assistance to college students in the Commonwealth by roughly $25 million. While the move was a helpful gesture, students should realize that it came only after a similar bill stalled last year. The apparent reason for the delay was that the bill included the politically unwise provision of funding the aid by increasing cigarette taxes. The tobacco lobby carried more weight on Beacon Hill than the active student lobby, and the measure went nowhere. The version that suddenly became desirable this week had essentially the same provisions. But this time no funding source was specified.

Speculation was heavy that the motivation for much of last week's legislative action was, and will be in the next few weeks, the imminent change of leadership in the State House. The more scrupulous Michael S. Dukakis will succeed Gov. Edward J. King in January. King's four years in office have been characterized by political--and sometimes illegal--horsetrading, not by principled progress on important problems. It is only appropriate, then, though sad, that he should go out in this style.

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