Robert A. DeLeo, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, will step down effective Tuesday at 6 p.m.
In nearly 12 years at the top of Beacon Hill, Winthrop's DeLeo has survived two governors, four senate presidents, four top budget lieutenants and three U.S. attorneys. He's chaperoned over a decade's worth of incremental liberal policy-making while pleasing employers, irritating the left and avoiding the corruption that ensnared his most recent predecessors.
As he departs the speakership for a job at his alma mater, Northeastern University, here are some of the issues that have shaped DeLeo's legacy as the longest serving speaker in state history.
One of the first monumental exercises of the House's power under DeLeo was the gutting of Gov. Deval Patrick's $3 billion plan to invest in transportation infrastructure. The House instead settled on a more moderate plan in 2009. The final version, backed by Senate President Therese Murray, reorganized the state's transportation bureaucracy. Lawmakers then raised the gas tax by three cents in 2013. But voters rejected the idea of automatic increases tied to inflation, leaving the state's transportation systems underfunded through the crippling 2015 snow storms and beyond. Earlier this year, DeLeo put forward a gas tax hike plan to address the decades-old infrastructure woes, but this time he didn't have Senate backing.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND POLICE
Much as transportation has been a topic that bookended DeLeo's tenure, the movement to reform the state's criminal justice system has been a common thread throughout the last decade. Lawmakers took their biggest swing at addressing the "back end" of the court and corrections system in 2018 by removing most mandatory minimum drug sentences, allowing minors to expunge some criminal charges and adding restrictions to harsh prison policies. In 2020, the reformers' energy went to the "front end" of the problem: oversight of how police exercise their authority over citizens and how they are held accountable. DeLeo will leave with a major police accountability bill on the goal line. Most expect it to become law now that a compromise has been struck with Gov. Charlie Baker.
TAXES AND SPENDING
DeLeo has developed a reputation in left-leaning circles, fair or not depending who you ask, for opposing raising revenue from the broad public or from employers. Along with the modest gas tax increase, early on DeLeo oversaw the 2009 sales tax increase from 5%t to 6.25% — a 25% increase that still stands.
Since then, government spending has increased 53.7%, from $32.4 billion in fiscal year 2010 to $49.8 billion this fiscal year, with tax revenue and federal aid balancing out the budget each year. Over the same time period since the Great Recession, billions have been put away in the state's rainy day fund that budget writers are now relying on to maintain state services during the pandemic.
DeLeo has supported the so-called "millionaires tax," a 4% surtax on incomes over $1 million, as the proposal made its way through the Legislature's constitutional conventions, headed to voters for an eventual vote at the ballot.
One of DeLeo's biggest policy pursuits has been increasing gun control in Massachusetts and maintaining the state's position as one of the most regulated in the nation. After the Sandy Hook shooting, DeLeo commissioned the 2014 report on gun violence that lead to the state's groundbreaking law later that year giving local police the authority to regulate weapons in their jurisdiction, added criminal and mental health background checks and established for the first time a "red flag" provision where a third party could request a weapon be removed from a legal gun owner. Subsequent mass shootings in the U.S. lead to further reforms: a ban on bump stocks and an expansion of the "red flag" law allowing courts to confiscate legal weapons, both in 2018.
The trial of former Probation Commissioner John O'Brien and two other department officials for treating the state's prisoner release system as a jobs racket brought the world of Beacon Hill patronage under the microscope of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who had just sent DeLeo's predecessor, Speaker Sal DiMasi, to federal prison for corruption. DeLeo was one of several lawmakers caught up in the case, but he was never charged with anything beyond being labelled an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the scheme. Further vindication for DeLeo came when an appeals court overturned the convictions of O'Brien and his co-defendants and called the prosecution overzealous.
One of the first major policy shifts of the DeLeo era came when the new speaker reversed his predecessor DiMasi's opposition to casino gambling, a decision that lead to the resort casinos in Everett and Springfield and the slots parlor in Plainville. The gaming law put in place by DeLeo and Murray began a slow process of establishing the Gaming Commission and drew up an approval process for licensees. It also set up dozens of clashes between casino developers, residents, local government officials and Native American tribes.
The battle for equal rights and access to public accommodations for those who identify as trangender was fought in two rounds: The first, in 2012, added protections for transgender people to the state's discrimination laws. The second round came four years later, when advocates, working with DeLeo, managed to push the the final piece of the equality agenda through the House and grant access for transgender people to public accomodations like restaurants, bathrooms, locker rooms and more. That law withstood a challenge from conservatives at the ballot that year, with over two-thirds of voters agreeing to keep the equal access provisions on the books.
KEEPING THE HOUSE DOMINANT
Throughout his tenure, DeLeo was unwavering in his efforts to keep the House "more equal" than Senate. Legislative rules give the 160 members of the House the upper hand over their 40 Senate colleagues when it comes to the flow of legislation and which chamber bills are assigned to — a power DeLeo exercised in order to keep the House's agenda the Legislature's priority. DeLeo's moderate stances on issues of taxation and spending empowered him even more when Baker was elected in 2014. With then-Senate President Stan Rosenberg's left-leaning chamber tilting away from the new Republican governor, DeLeo found himself the gatekeeper of the centrist third way that's dominated State House politics ever since.