State House News Service

In Tone Shift, Patrick Calls Senate Transportation Finance Bill ‘Very Hopeful’

BOSTON — Signaling the potential for a compromise on transportation financing, Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday did not dismiss a Senate proposal teed up for debate on Saturday the way he rejected the “pretend fix” House plan, opening the door to a middle path that could avoid his veto.

Though still smaller than his $1 billion request for new transportation funding, the Senate financing plan for transit and infrastructure mirrors the House’s $500 million gas, tobacco and business tax proposal but goes beyond it with about $600 million in overall new revenues by 2018 and over $800 million in planned spending on transportation.

Patrick threatened to veto the House bill, which was rolled out with Senate leaders, but said he is still reviewing the Senate bill that emerged this week with some changes that appear intended to appease the governor and other lawmakers who want to spend more heavily on transportation.

“It’s definitely moving in the right direction. It’s very hopeful. I’ve heard a couple numbers that are a little closer to the $1 billion we proposed originally in transportation, and that is great, because it means we’ll be able to do some things. We’re trying to check to see whether the numbers, you know, whether the dollars are real, and we’ve been in touch with the Senate president’s office and others about that,” Patrick told reporters in the State House Thursday, according to a transcript of the interview provided by the governor’s office.

With the Senate expected to debate and vote on its bill during a rare Saturday session, Patrick said, “I’m going to, as they say, reserve my rights. But it’s a very, very hopeful movement in the right direction.”

The weekend Senate session to debate the tax and transportation funding bill was scheduled on Thursday, and senators have until Friday at 5 p.m. to submit amendments.

“I don’t expect to have a lot,” Senate President Therese Murray told the News Service. “We had two very good, long caucuses where people talked out and we were able to explain where the money we have on the table comes from and where it’s going to be spent. A lot of the members, the more progressive members, got to be very passionate about what they feel should happen going down the road, so I doubt this will be the last conversation we have.”

Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo last week jointly presented a plan that would raise $500 million in new revenue for transportation through increased taxes on gasoline, tobacco and businesses.

However, the movement from the Senate closer to the governor’s revenue target came amid speculation from senators and advocates that Murray and her leadership team may have been nervous about rounding up the votes to pass a bill, let alone override a veto.

The two leaders, according to sources close to both the speaker and president, traded a handful of phone calls leading up to the release of a new Senate Ways and Means bill Tuesday with increased spending that appears to have succeeded in picking off some liberal Democrats who support higher revenue.

A Murray spokesman declined to comment on the nature of the private conversations between Murray and DeLeo.

Sen. Daniel Wolf, a Harwich Democrat, said he believed the votes in the Senate are trending toward “yes.”

Wolf said there was no question that he would have voted against the smaller package that cleared the House on Monday, but wanted to take the next two days to review the Senate numbers and believes he could find his way to supporting the Senate bill.

“I’m really solidly undecided,” said Wolf, calling $800 million his “floor” for new transportation investments.

Similarly, Sen. Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said she had serious concerns about the smaller size of the House tax package, but would support the Senate plan as long as her amendment to prevent toll increases on the turnpike gets adopted.

“As long as the toll piece comes out, I will be a yes,” Spilka told the News Service. “They should not be using tolls for operating expenses. That to me is outrageous.”

To get to $800 million in investments by 2018, the Senate plan like the House and the governor’s proposals relies on MassDOT and the MBTA to find additional savings, efficiencies or new revenue to finance their operating budgets. Tolls, fares and Registry of Motor Vehicle fees are among the options those agencies have to meet their benchmarks.

Spilka compared the tense negotiations between the House, Senate and governor over new taxes to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: “The governor was too high, the House was too low….,” Spilka said.

Sen. James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat among a group of lawmakers who would prefer more tax revenue in the bill, said there will not be any attempts by Democrats to slow the bill down. Eldridge said he expects debate to go forward Saturday.

“I think it is safe to say at least from Democrats, there won’t be any laying it on the table,” Eldridge said, referring to a parliamentary procedure used in the Senate to delay debate.

“Certainly, I assume there will be a full debate on the merits of the bill,” Eldridge said, adding that he continues to advocate for more revenue in the bill.

Eldridge said he is concerned some of the proposed spending is coming from the general fund, rather than new taxes, and that the transportation finance bill is “intrinsically connected” to the fiscal 2014 budget.

“I would much rather see another corporate loophole tax closed, capital gains, or some other progressive tax be the way we get to a higher number rather than just redirecting funds,” Eldridge said.

Aides to Murray said after a Democratic caucus Thursday they believe they have addressed concerns of Democrats and Republicans who might have objected to proceeding with Saturday’s session after the Friday amendment deadline, and expect the debate to occur as scheduled. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr told the News Service Thursday Republicans were concerned about having enough time to review amendments before the start of debate.

Colleen Quinn contributed reporting

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