Incinerator knockdown shows Bulger's Massachusetts might

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WILLIAM BULGER may not be the biggest Massachusetts lawmaker, but he packs a lot of power - possibly more than any other elected official in the commonwealth. And this is not about to change - despite the tenacity of Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, who locked horns with him over a proposed incinerator.

If Senate president Bulger doesn't want a waste-to-energy plant in the city's South Bay area, as recommended by a mayoral task force and by the mayor himself, it probably won't be built there.

But then where will the incinerator be located? Bulger, never one to stick his neck out in a controversy unless he has a sense of where he is heading, says he favors a site outside of Boston. So far, however, he has given no hint where the ideal spot might be. Finding a place acceptable to local residents could be nearly impossible.

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Bulger's 39 Senate colleagues, all but eight Democrats, will likely resist a proposal that would place the facility in their district. Thus, his promised disclosure of the ``perfect site'' is bound to upset at least one senator.

For that reason, the Senate president wants the task force that selected the South Bay site to come up with a location he can support. In that way responsibility for the choice would rest on other shoulders, and fewer political feathers might be ruffled.

Until the incinerator dispute arose, Mayor Flynn had been viewed as at least an arms-length Bulger ally. Both hail from South Boston, and they have served together in the legislature.

While eager to get on with the South Bay project, Flynn might not have complained about Bulger's opposition if it had not come as it did, through what amounts to 11th-hour restrictive legislation.

Several senators, who were not in the chamber at the time or did not know what his amendment was all about, have condemned their leader's move.

The controversial measure, hustled through on a voice vote without debate, would cost Boston some $40 million in neighborhood development funds if the waste-to-energy plant is built in South Bay.

Individual senators might have more to lose than to gain were they to challenge Bulger.

This was not the first time that a measure has suddenly surfaced and been whisked through after a brief huddle with Bulger at the podium, during a ``brief recess'' he called. Bulger has wielded the Senate gavel for nine years - longer than any predecessor. Contributing to his longevity is the fact that every Democrat holds an extra-compensation post, as a committee chairman or legislative floor leader, and Bulger makes all such appointments. They serve at his pleasure.

As presiding officer, Bulger also controls the legislative flow. Thus, senators are not inclined to displease him. This, of course, adds to his staying power.

Bulger's image as a friend of Boston would not be enhanced were his action, which still needs House approval, to cost the city neighborhood development funds. But from his standpoint it is a question of doing what he feels best for his district by doing all he can to keep the incinerator out. This despite the real possibility that a waste plant elsewhere in Greater Boston would cost Hub taxpayers more through higher trucking costs.

In defending himself, Bulger was quick to emphasize that regardless of whether the $40 million in development funds is provided, Boston stands to receive nearly $1 billion in state aid, including more than $350 million in capital-improvement projects, during this fiscal year.

While none of this is in jeopardy, other pending pro-Boston legislation and Flynn priorities might face rough sledding in the Senate if Bulger's efforts to stop the South Bay plant ultimately fail.

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