State House News Service

State House Roundup: Debates Have Consequences

THE STATE HOUSE — There’s a strong chance that when voters wake on Nov. 7 nothing much will have changed.

President BObama could still be president — notwithstanding a dreadful performance in his first debate against former Gov. Mitt Romney this week — Scott Brown could still be a United States senator, and Democrats, mostly the same faces, will still be firmly in control of both branches of the Massachusetts Legislature.

What that means for residents of the commonwealth is an entirely different question, the simple fact that the election is over perhaps holding as much sway as who wins and loses.

To hear House Minority Leader Brad Jones tell it, somewhere in the dark recesses of the largely emptied State House, lawmakers are huddling this campaign season, hatching plans to tax your gas and siphon off more of your income. All the more reason to elect Republicans, he said.

“I will say that I am well aware that numerous discussions have been going on about increased taxes and that obviously members of the majority party don’t want to have those go public until after the election but they are absolutely underway and going on,” Jones said.

It’s no secret that the Patrick administration is crafting a long-term transportation funding plan for release in January and that new revenue options are being explored. Whether the governor has the political appetite to revisit the gas tax remains to be seen, but Jones said he has also heard rumblings of jacking the state income tax from its relatively newly lowered perch of 5.25 percent to 5.95 percent.

In one breath this week, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said that the Legislature’s resistance to new taxes over the last session was one of the many accomplishments lawmakers can be proud of as they campaign for re-election. Then he said he wasn’t sure it would last: “That’s never been a desire of mine to increase taxes. But on the other hand . . . I’m smart enough to know that until you see the figures of what you’re working with, you don’t make any pledges.”

The timing was not lost on Jones, who responded thusly: “Unfortunately the Democrats don’t want to have that discussion before the election because they know the public isn’t going to be welcome to it, isn’t going to be open to it. People are still hurting. They’re very apprehensive. We have a fragile economy,” Jones said.

Just how fragile, however, appears to depend on who you ask.

The state reported that flat tax collections are trailing benchmarks by $95 million one quarter of the way through the fiscal year, setting up a decision later this month over whether to strap in and ride it out or modify projections that could force unpopular mid-year budget cuts. That decision will be made, in part, knowing that additional money will be needed to compensate the attorneys and sheriffs dealing with the continued fallout of faulty drug lab testing that continued to flush convicted felons back out onto the streets.

Business confidence dipped in September as economists worried that growth would to continue to crawl, hurting job creation and making the long slog toward economic recovery an even bumpier ride. Mass Insight, however, reported this week that consumer confidence is higher than at any point since April 2007 – before the Great Recession – a trend that could eventually make those pessimistic business owners a bit happier if it holds.

Speaking of happy, Mitt Romney’s handlers must have been thrilled this week, particularly Eric Fehrnstrom. His clients availed themselves well, starting with U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in Lowell for his second debate with Elizabeth Warren. Then it was off to Denver for a ringside seat to Round 1 of Obama vs. Romney.

Voters in Massachusetts who took in both debates were treated to polar opposite moderating styles, and some hated both.

David Gregory brought his confrontational “Meet the Press” questioning style to UMass Lowell on Monday night, holding both candidates accountable for what they said and have said.

Leading a debate with more style and less wonk than the presidential debate, Gregory drew some curious responses from both Brown and Warren, including the Republican senator’s affinity for conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and Warren’s willingness to work across the aisle with Indiana’s Dick Lugar, who will be long gone from Washington come January. As if both camps needed more fodder.

For those grumbling about Gregory inserting himself too often into the debate, along came Jim Lehrer who basically said, “Go,” and allowed Romney and Obama to talk about whatever they wanted for 90 minutes. Romney proceeded, by most accounts, to run circles around the president who appeared off his game or content not to engage.

Whatever the Obama strategy might have been heading into the debate, Romney largely succeeded in halting the narrative that his campaign was circling the drain and that the swing states belong to Obama.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate race is still a toss-up with increasing focus on what the outcome might mean for control of the Senate in the next Congress. President Bill Clinton, on behalf of Warren, said Massachusetts would cast the deciding vote, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen cast the John Tierney versus Richard Tisei race in a similar light.

Brown continued hammering Warren over her legal work, this time representing Dow Chemical, and picked up the endorsement of the consummate moderate Bill Weld, while Warren stumped with Caroline Kennedy and Menino, who by one account is pulling all his strings to get Warren elected.

The story that wasn’t this week? A potential janitor’s strike averted at the last minute, keeping 14,000 workers on the job to keep buildings like the State House and Prudential Tower business and tourist friendly.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Romney stops the Obamomentum, GOP warns elections have consequences.

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