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Budget amendment in Senate would let Amorello keep job

A little-noticed amendment to the Senate version of the state budget would extend the term of a loyalist to Matthew J. Amorello on the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board, a provision that would protect Amorello from ouster as chairman of the authority by Governor Mitt Romney.

The amendment, inserted with no debate by Senator Dianne Wilkerson, would extend the term of Jordan Levy, an Amorello ally, from July, when it is scheduled to expire, to Jan. 15. That is one week after Romney's term as governor ends.

Romney has battled Amorello since 2003, urging lawmakers to merge the Turnpike Authority with the Highway Department and then calling for Amorello's resignation in 2004 after the discovery of hundreds of leaks in the Big Dig. With an appointment to the vacant seat, Romney would gain a majority on the authority's board and could have him removed.

In an interview yesterday, Wilkerson said she added the amendment to preserve the board's continuity as construction of the Big Dig winds down. She said she did not discuss it with Amorello or other Turnpike Authority officials.

``I want to keep the board together as we are closing out the Big Dig process," she said. ``The value is in not bring ing in someone who has absolutely no history on this process."

The amendment still faces hurdles. Representatives from the House and Senate must meet in conference to reach an agreement on their different budget bills. It is unclear whether the House would support the amendment. If it ends up in the final version of the budget, Romney could veto the amendment. A two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature would be needed to override the veto.

Reacting to the amendment, Romney's office released a statement saying: ``There is no agency in state government that is in more need of reform than the Turnpike Authority, and we believe most members of the Legislature will agree with Governor Romney that it is time to bring new oversight and accountability to the Big Dig."

Amorello, a former Senate colleague of Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, has significant clout on Beacon Hill. A Republican, Amorello ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1998, then managed the state Highway Department until being appointed as Turnpike Authority chairman by Acting Governor Jane Swift in 2002.

A spokeswoman for Travaglini said he supported the amendment because ``it is in the best interest of the Commonwealth to maintain consistent management of the Big Dig project."

``This is not a move to protect chairman Amorello -- it is a move to protect consistent management of the project," said Ann Dufresne, Travaglini's spokeswoman. For 20 years, the project has been managed by a consortium of two private construction and engineering management firms, Bechtel Corp. and Parsons Brinckerhoff, which reports to the Turnpike Authority.

The turnpike amendment was added to the Senate budget last week, along with other amendments, including one dealing with a Quincy waterfront project and another dealing with a Boston ice-skating rink. Wilkerson insisted that the provision was her own idea and that Senate leaders agreed with her when she broached the subject. ``It came from me to them," she said.

She said she has not approved of the turnpike board's management of the long-delayed, over budget Big Dig. But she said her amendment would extend the term of Levy, who she said is one of the most vociferous critics of Big Dig management.

``If anyone has been squawking about how it has been done, it's him," said Wilkerson, a Democrat who represents Boston neighborhoods including Roxbury, Back Bay, and the South End.

Earlier in his governorship, Romney pushed to merge the Turnpike Authority with the state Highway Department for the sake of efficiency. The Legislature rejected that merger. However, in part because of disenchantment with Amorello's management of the Big Dig, the Legislature passed a law in 2004 to give Romney majority control of the turnpike board by July of this year.

Last year Romney was able to get Richard K. Anderson, another Amorello loyalist, off the board, despite an effort by the authority to block the move by asserting that the law passed in 2004 extended the terms of some board members, including Anderson.

So far, Romney has made two appointments to the board: Daniel A. Grabauskas, the former transportation secretary and now MBTA general manager, in 2004; and Mary Z. Connaughton, a certified public accountant and a failed Republican legislative candidate, in 2005, after the authority dropped its contention that Anderson's term had been extended.

Under another provision of the 2004 legislation, Amorello's position as chairman and chief executive officer would essentially be eliminated in July 2007, when the secretary of transportation would become chairman of the Turnpike Authority and management would be left to agency staff.

In a story in the Globe last year, Senator Steven A. Baddour was unequivocal about the intent of the 2004 legislation.

``It was part of what the governor negotiated for: He wanted to make sure he had a majority on the board in July 2006," Baddour said. ``And that's what he got."

Yesterday, Baddour backpedaled from that statement. ``There is a case to be made that appointing a new board member to the authority only a few months before the [2004] legislation takes effect is not in the best interest of the Commonwealth," he said.

``Ultimately, this is about keeping some continuity at the authority until after the gubernatorial election and enactment of the" 2004 legislation , he said.

Levy did not return phone messages left for him.

Mariellen Burns, a spokeswoman for the Turnpike Authority, did not respond to written questions, except to confirm that Amorello's salary is ``approximately $223,000" and to say she did not know whether Amorello would get a full year's credit toward a pension if he worked at least one day as chairman in calendar year 2007 before leaving his position.

Sean Murphy's e-mail address is smurphy@globe.com.

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