State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Games People Play

Governor Deval Patrick.

There have been rifts over the gas tax and collective bargaining rights, skirmishes over sentencing reforms and more serious disagreements about casinos – not once but twice.

But not since the great staring contest of 2010 between Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Deval Patrick over slot parlors have hostilities between the executive and legislative branches been so open and raw. 

Patrick this week didn’t just threaten to veto the Democratic leadership’s proposal to raise $ 500 million for transportation with tax hikes on gas, tobacco and businesses. He eviscerated it, challenging not just the policy points, but the sincerity of the leaders who crafted it.

“To come up with this plan is just not serious and to say it’s a plan, to say it’s a solution is just not serious and I’m not going to play that game. I’m still here. I’m still engaged. I’m still willing to talk about compromise,” Patrick said, calling it “too small” and too short-sighted after years of neglected infrastructure investments.

DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray finally fully responded this week to Patrick’s proposal to generate $ 1.9 billion in new revenue through tax reform for long-term transportation and education investments with a more immediate, and scaled down proposal focused on a 3-cent gas tax hike, a $ 1 per-pack cigarette tax increase and business taxes on software and out-of-state corporations.

“We’re trying to protect the middle class. That is I think one of the major differences of the two plans,” DeLeo said Thursday after Patrick’s veto threat. DeLeo called the leadership plan one that is “more responsive to the needs of the middle class,” a clever way of packaging a $ 500 million tax increase. Murray said the plan would not “bankrupt” the current generation. “Doable,” she called it.

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For three leaders of the same party who profess to have great respect and personal admiration for one another, Patrick, DeLeo and Murray seem to be having considerable difficulty playing nice. The governor did not see a summary of the legislative leadership’s plan until minutes before they rolled it out for the press, and they had not spoken about it before Patrick stood before the cameras to call it “a pretend fix.”

Hatched largely in private among a select few lawmakers, even members of DeLeo’s leadership team were uncertain early Tuesday morning where the speaker had landed on a plan that’s already up for a vote on Monday.

Two major differences between this battle over taxes and the gambling impasse in 2010 are the calendar and the 2014 election. Patrick does not have the luxury of using the expiring legislative clock as leverage to get what he wants, and his own December 2014 expiration date gives lawmakers little reason to feel compelled to bend.

Asked about his status and whether DeLeo and Murray were exploiting it, Patrick said, “No, no. That would be a mistake.” But is it?

The governor all but conceded a fact learned over six years in the building: legislative leadership gets what it wants. The only question now is whether the plan will be modified in the coming days to make it more palatable to Patrick, or whether liberal Democrats in the House or Senate are willing to stand up to DeLeo and Murray and vote to sustain a veto – a possibility under the right circumstances.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones is focused for now on pushing a tax-free Republican alternative to address transportation funding, but when asked whether his caucus would vote to sustain a gubernatorial veto, he said through an aide, “Of course.” That could be 30 of the 55 votes Patrick needs to force leaders back to the negotiating table.

There were also rumblings after a lengthy closed-door caucus in Murray’s office about the progressive ranks of the Senate coalescing behind a Patrick veto.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey responded, in a round-about way on Friday afternoon, to those machinations with an impromptu visit to the Fourth Estate offices making it clear that $ 500 million is the ceiling for the Legislature, and if the plan fails there is “unlikely” to be resumed talk around taxes.

As the tax plan was being released and discussed at the State House on Tuesday, voters were electing Everett Democrat Wayne “Roadhouse” Matewsky and Republican Leah Cole to the House, filling the seats left by Stephen Smith and the late Joyce Spiliotis.

Republicans were quick to claim Cole’s victory in Peabody as referendum on higher taxes, particularly Gov. Deval Patrick’s $ 1.9 billion revenue plan that the 24-year-old nurse campaigned against. That reading of the electorate, however, may have underplayed the three-way nature of Cole’s race against essentially two Democrats and which Cole won by less than 100 votes.

Still, Patrick is probably both right and wrong when he says the “politics don’t make sense” for House and Senate Democrats to wrap their arms around a $ 500 million tax increase that addresses only the immediate budgetary pressures on the MBTA and MassDOT, but funds none of the “growth” projects desired like South Coast Rail and the Green Line extension.

Democrats have reason to be concerned about a tax vote given recent history. In 2010, after DeLeo pushed through a nearly $ 1 billion sales tax increase for transportation, local aid and other spending in the face of daunting, recession-forced budget cuts, the speaker watched 12 incumbent Democrats fall that November, and another four open seats went to Republicans.

On the other hand, Patrick believes in going big – if you’re going to vote for taxes, go home to your district with more to show for it than a T that runs the same as it does today and accounting books that show the state is no longer borrowing to pay its highway employees. Not exactly campaign ad material. 

Better to have shiny new trains and buses, new commuting options to jobs in the city, and new pre-school classrooms to point to, he says.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Veto threat from Patrick hangs over House as preferred legislative leadership tax plan takes shape.

South End Patch