State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Three’s Company

Massachusetts State House

Like pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite fit together yet, the Big Three may have been separated at birth, but with each incremental step their destinies seem to grow more intertwined.

No, we’re not talking about those Big Three – Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and Speaker Robert DeLeo – though they play major character roles in this thickening plot. 

Instead, three bills have come to define the early months of the 2013 legislative agenda and resolutions on tax hikes, local road funding and the annual state budget continue to be elusive and dependent on one another.

Patrick spent the early part of his week welcoming British Prime Minister David Cameron to Boston for a few quick meetings and a visit to the Copley memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings before hopping a plane to Ireland for a rendezvous with Murray, already several days into her cross-Atlantic trade mission.

If legislative leaders detect a slight accent creeping in when Patrick returns to work at the State House next week they shouldn’t be alarmed or confused. Then again, they haven’t exactly been speaking the same language lately anyway.

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The Senate Ways and Means Committee this week released its version of the fiscal 2014 state budget, a $ 33.9 billion spending plan that bore a striking resemblance to the House blueprint that roundly rebuffed Patrick’s calls for massive new investments in transportation and early education.

Unlike the House, the Senate leadership’s budget provides $ 15 million to expand access to pre-school, a step toward the governor’s preferences. The budget proposal, however, backtracked from the House and governor’s commitment to boost higher education funding to avoid tuition hikes next year at UMass and other public universities. All of that is to say, Senate leaders created ample room to maneuver for eventual conference committee negotiations with the House.

Of course, the divergence from Patrick was not unexpected given how House and Senate leaders already recycled the governor’s expansive tax package that he proposed to finance the new investments, instead moving forward with a more limited, but still quite large $ 500 million tax increase on gas, tobacco and business.

“I find it interesting to put it mildly that the budget includes tax revenue apparently from a bill that hasn’t passed yet. And not only hasn’t it passed, my understanding is there’s only been one conference committee meeting,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr lamented.

Democratic leaders don’t seem to care much that $ 430 million in the Senate budget is contingent on passage of the transportation financing tax bill. Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer, who sits on the conference committee negotiating the tax bill, said he’s confident the House and Senate are in enough agreement on that front to bank on it in the budget.

Meanwhile, DeLeo was left at home this week to mind the State House with Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray. The most action was on the first floor. There, court officers spent much of the week guarding a conference room where the House Ethics Committee held three days of inquiries into allegations of misconduct against a House member.

The 11 committee members, sworn to secrecy, have been too skittish to comment on even their break schedule, let alone the subject of the inquiry, but Worcester Rep. John Fresolo’s daily presence with Beacon Hill favorite defense attorney Tom Kiley left little doubt of the subject. The nature of the allegations remains in question.

Conveniently timed to coincide with a House PAC fundraiser in the evening, DeLeo also convened a brief mid-week session to take the final vote on a $ 300 million Chapter 90 bill already behind schedule and anxiously awaited by municipal officials with local roads project in queue.

The Senate must still take one more vote on the road funding bill before it arrives on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, and Lt. Gov. Murray eased, but did not totally bury, local concerns that the road funding could remained tied up and fall hostage to tax and budget negotiations.

The fact remains that the House, the Senate and the governor all support the $ 300 million funding level for Chapter 90. But the administration continues to waiver on whether it thinks the tax bill before the conference committee will generate enough new money to support the $ 100 million increase in the local infrastructure program.

“I can tell you unequivocally (the governor is) not going to kick the can down the road and spend money he doesn’t think we have the ability to pay,” Murray told local officials at a meeting of the Local Government Advisory Council. 

Even if the governor signs the bill, he must still file a separate authorization bill to borrow the funds before cities and towns see a penny, and local leaders said they worry the governor could try to use that step as leverage against lawmakers in revenue debate. Murray said he think Patrick might be open to releasing some funding on a “pro-rated, tentative basis.”

If might have been a good week for Patrick to be out of the country given his penchant for peevishness toward questions about his political future.

With the White House in turmoil over the IRS targeting Tea Party groups, new questions about Benghazi and agitation over a Justice Department seizure of Associated Press phone records, the Chicago Sun Times reported on Friday, citing an anonymous “top White House source,” that Obama will look to replace Attorney General Eric Holder when the furor in Washington dies down. 

And the president has an eye on Gov. Patrick or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the paper reported.

Patrick has steadfastly denied any interest in moving on before his second term expires after 2014, but he will likely field another volley of questions about his possible future in the Obama administration when he returns stateside.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Senate leader’s release a fiscal 2014 budget as reliant on new taxes as the one passed by the House.

South End Patch