State House News Service Weekly Roundup: March Madness

The Massachusetts State House.

The calendar says it’s spring, but Mother Nature remains unconvinced. House Speaker Robert DeLeo can sympathize.

Nearly three full months into the year, and the Speaker seems no closer to making up his mind on taxes than he was in 2012 when he announced the transportation fix would be the first order of the business for the new Legislature.

It still might be.

House and Senate committees are still dormant, for the most part, and leaders are fixated on responding to Gov. Deval Patrick’s package of tax reforms. It’s usually at this point that Senate President Therese Murray tends to get antsy, and orders her Ways and Means chairman to advance something, anything, that senators can vote up or down – okay, up.

That’s not the case, yet. “The committees still need time to have their hearings,” Murray said this week. So what about Sen. Stephen Brewer down on the second floor? He must be cooking up something right? Sex offender registry reform? “He’s cooking up the budget,” Murray said.

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By most accounts, DeLeo has become a tortured leader. Monday morning meetings with his leadership team have turned into two-and-a-half hour long fence dancing sessions. Even simple questions like what committee is working on the transportation financing bill can’t be answered directly.

DeLeo, by those around him, is said to be deeply conflicted, not just on how much revenue he can ask taxpayers to shoulder and from where it should come, but also what those votes will mean for his membership come election time next year. It’s impossible to separate the politics, a fact not missed by Charlie Baker slowly reinserting himself into the public sphere, or Bill Weld.

DeLeo is equally unsure whether he wants to tackle the issue with a separate bill before the budget, in the budget, or in multiple steps, and is said to be increasingly peeved by Gov. Patrick’s rhetoric encouraging supporters to “get in the grill” of lawmakers who lack the “political courage” to vote for new revenue.

Witness his radio interview Wednesday night when friend and host Dan Rea asked DeLeo from where he might pull new revenue considering he’s not enamored with the governor’s one-point hike in the income tax. DeLeo said he was entertaining Patrick’s proposed sales tax on candy and soda, but then kind of quickly shot it down, saying he was worried about government becoming Big Brother.

Smart money in the building has been on the gas tax as the House vehicle of choice to close the MBTA’s budget gap, invest in roads and bridges and stop paying transportation employees with borrowed funds. Gov. Patrick has stated publicly that DeLeo is being urged in that direction and Michael Widmer, of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, recommended 15 cents over three years.

How about it, Bob? “I’m not sure if I’m so crazy about that,” DeLeo told Rea. So starved for hints about what goes on in the mind of the speaker, anti-smoking advocates cheered DeLeo’s comments that he was taking a “serious look” at raising the per-pack cigarette tax.

Patrick is listening, too, and in the absence of anything concrete to react to he continues to beat the drum.

This week it was a roundtable of economists and business groups selectively gathered to stand behind the governor in support of his tax plan: “There’s also a consensus here that the $ 1.9 billion we have proposed is the right number for transportation and education and we should try as much as possible to land there,” he said, later adding “this is it for a time” on taxes, knowing what he gets the state will have to live with for at least a few years – the last big tax hike was four years ago.

Come to think of it, a few years was all it took for Gov. Patrick, who campaigned with “no plan” to raise taxes to alter course. Charlie Baker, no doubt, is keenly aware of being on the right side of that 2010 argument, and has begun to reinsert himself into the public discourse.

Meanwhile, 2014 continues to be a wide open field. Former candidate for auditor Mike Lake jumped into the lieutenant governor’s race, Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover wants to run for treasurer, and Rep. John Keenan of Salem is reportedly exploring options. Who isn’t?

Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone wanted no part of campaigning in 2014, following Scott Brown and Jim Vallee over to Nixon Peabody. Patrick now gets to appoint a new top Middlesex prosecutor, yet another avenue for Beacon Hill’s ambitious.

While lawmakers fret about the tax vote they may have to take, it’s unclear whether Rep. John Fresolo will be around long enough to take it. The eight-term Worcester Democrat says he does not plan to resign despite “serious allegations” – rumored to be shaded of Cusack only darker – brought to the attention of the speaker by a House employee.

DeLeo’s office confirmed the House Ethics Committee investigation into an unnamed House member on unspecified charges Thursday. And while Fresolo refused to talk with the media, he at least admitted to talking with an attorney.

Fresolo may not be around long-enough to see a tax bill hit the floor, but Wayne Matewsky might be arriving just in time. Matewsky, the Everett city councilor who won the Democratic primary to replace Stephen “Stat” Smith, spent his week fending off allegations that he had berated the staff of the Texas Roadhouse and mocked a young girl with disabilities in front of her parents. The special election is scheduled for April 2.

The one forward development this week came on the gaming front with Gov. Deval Patrick and the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe agreeing to a new revenue sharing compact. The deal tiers the amount of casino revenue the tribe would return to the state – the most likely scenario being a 17 percent return.

The state stands to see no revenue, however, if the southeast region is opened to a commercial developer as well, food for thought after the Gaming Commission this week delayed a decision on how to handle the region.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The speaker wrestles with taxes.

South End Patch