State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Backing Into Half a Cat

Governor Deval Patrick

Four years ago Gov. Deval Patrick went to the Legislature and asked for a 19-cent gas tax increase to fund transportation. They scoffed at his idea, then raised the sales tax and swore off further revenue increases, until now.

With that history in mind, a sense of irony settled over Beacon Hill this week, where there’s a possibility that the governor’s proposal to hike the income tax, lower the sales tax and eliminate some tax deductions might be driving lawmakers back to that moment in 2009 with a chance to reconsider.

It would be odd if House lawmakers turned later this month to the gas tax for new revenue. But not implausible. At least not anymore.

The plot thickened as the negotiations between House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Patrick – private up until now – spilled more into the public sphere. And with little to nothing else on the legislative agenda at the moment, all ears were tuned.

DeLeo on Thursday went before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to embrace Patrick’s priorities of investing in transportation and education, with one big caveat. He committed to raising new revenue for transportation, but said the House plan would be “far more narrow in scope and of a significantly smaller size” than Patrick’s $ 1.9 billion ask. And he said he wanted to do it apart from the budget, possibly by the end of the month.

And so on a snowy Friday afternoon, Patrick went before the House and Senate Ways and Means committees to testify on his own plan, an unusual but not unprecedented step by the governor to lobby lawmakers face-to-face in public with the clock ticking a little faster. And he brought charts.

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Cognizant of DeLeo’s comments, Patrick warned against the temptation to focus just on transportation for now and to ignore education needs until a later date. He said he did not “pad” his $ 1.9 billion investment plan, and while there may be more than one way to skin a cat, he cautioned against “backing ourselves into half a cat.”

Calling “brainpower” the hallmark of Massachusetts, Patrick likened a transportation-only strategy to the idea that Texas would stop investing in oil, or Iowa turning its back on corn. And then he addressed the gas tax, a topic that has dogged him for years – in short, he was against raising it before he was for that idea.

Without being specific, Patrick said he has heard that some in the Legislature want to raise the gas tax, maybe by 15 cents. (Full disclosure, Patrick’s plan also raises the gas tax, but only by half of a penny tied to inflation)

Calling such a plan “unacceptable to me,” Patrick said 15 cents tacked on to the state’s current 21-cent tax “does not buy us a modern transportation system” and tripling the gas tax to pay for everything would make the state uncompetitive. Moreover, a gas tax increase would help pay for the MBTA deficit and get transportation employees off the capital budget, but once again require residents in central, western and southeastern Massachusetts to foot the bill for Boston-area improvements.

DeLeo also said this week that regional equity will be a priority, so on that they agree. And he acknowledged what every vehicle owner knows – that gas prices are high, making a gas tax hike “a little more difficult” still, even if New Hampshire is contemplating a 15-cent increase of its own.

Concerns about how much extra people can afford to pay and how to spread that responsibility equitably are behind decisions being made on taxes. But if lawmakers are being honest – and Sen. Marc Pacheco was in the mood to be Friday – there are other electoral forces at work. Pacheco reminded Patrick that he’s seen this movie before – when Michael Dukakis held Patrick’s job – and it ends with 16 years of Republican governors.

There were signs of economic health. February tax collections were reported to be up 4.5 percent from last year and $ 25 million above lowered expectations for the month.

And the year-end revisions from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics delivered promising news that Massachusetts employers added 16,100 jobs in January and 92,800 jobs over the course of 2011 and 2012, up 32,100 from previous estimates. It was a reverse of last year’s revisions, which looked back and saw lower job growth rates.

Economic recovery, regardless of the measuring stick, has done little to soften the attitudes of voters toward government, with a new UMass Lowell poll showing that voters trust Beacon Hill (28 percent) only a little more than Capitol Hill (12 percent).

That same poll showed a striking unfamiliarity among voters with potential statewide candidates like Charlie Baker and Treasurer Steven Grossman, and a comfortable, if early, lead for Congressman Edward Markey over Democratic challenger Rep. Stephen Lynch and all three Republicans. Voters largely don’t know who they are either.

Unfamiliarity can be a double edged sword. For those trailing, it means there is still a chance to introduce yourself and for voters to change their minds. It also means your opponents can do the same to you.

That’s what Democrats were up to this week, their target of choice being former Republican U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, who they anointed frontrunner for the Republican nomination despite little substantive evidence to back up that status. Some think Democrats would prefer to run against Sullivan in the general since they view him as the most conservative of the GOP men in the field.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party laid it on thick, painting Sullivan as an active enemy of gay rights and marriage equality with little to go on except his public statements that he’s a “traditionalist” who believes marriage is between a man and a woman.

Sullivan did not waiver on that fact, but said he has never tried to undermine equal marriage in Massachusetts and was practically bullied into declaring his opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Sullivan eventually said he supports allowing states to set marriage laws. Gun control is expected to be the Democrats next line of attack against Sullivan.

Finally, any excitement over the possibility of the Olympics coming to Boston had a short shelf life, touted by private promoters only to be quickly doused by Mayor Thomas Menino, who called the idea “far-fetched” after the U.S. Olympic Committee told organizers to get the mayor on board and then they could talk.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Tax showdown taking shape, sooner than maybe expected.

South End Patch