State House News Service

State House Roundup: Exit Strategy

BOSTON — Clouded by sharp rhetoric, fragile egos and fluid whip counts, an endgame to the showdown between Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative leaders over tax increases and transportation began to emerge in which everyone could come out a winner, or at least save face.

On this Democrats seem to agree: It’s in everyone interest to find a solution, and quickly, before unresolved questions of new revenue for the MBTA and MassDOT force action on fare hikes and muddy a budget process now fully underway and reliant upon said tax hikes.

The Senate’s plan to go slightly higher on new revenue than the House – $600 million versus $500 million – and direct as much as $800 million to transportation spending five years from now triggered a thawing in Gov. Deval Patrick’s adamant opposition to the direction of the debate.

“Very hopeful,” Patrick said when asked his thoughts on the Senate plan – a far cry from “pretend fix,” “fiscal shell game” and “meaningless” used to describe the House version.

When Patrick said he thought it not “likely” that the transportation debate would end without additional revenue, it’s possible he did so because he knew his veto threat was just that – a threat he never really believed he would have to follow through with.

Advocates remained skeptical heading into the weekend. Transportation for Massachusetts claimed Senate Ways and Means overstated its revenue plan, particularly with regard to leasing property to utilities, putting the risk of higher fees, fares and tolls on motorists and transit riders.

Regardless, the shift from Senate President Therese Murray and Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer appeared to hit its mark leading into the Senate’s rare Saturday debate, leaving previously disenchanted liberal Democrats like Sen. Dan Wolf teetering on the fence.

The revised plan came after two “very good, long caucuses,” as described by Murray, where Senate members “talked out” and progressives “got to be very passionate about what they feel should happen going down the road.”

So the House claims the mantle of true pocketbook protectors, the Senate plays peacemaker and Patrick cuts his losses, signs the bill and says they moved in my direction? A looming possibility. They may not be talking to the governor, but Murray and Speaker Robert DeLeo are talking to each other.

The House on Monday engaged in its first real debate of the year on the tax and transportation bill, carrying on late into the evening hours before approving tax hikes on gasoline, cigarettes and businesses on a 97-55 vote that skewed both ways.

The vote came after a morning of Patrick urging House members to vote against the bill, and a weekend of administration phone calls to lawmakers reminding of the local infrastructure projects they might be jeopardizing by bucking the governor’s plan.

The vote was a victory for DeLeo, but not of the unquestionably lopsided variety to which he is accustomed. It was also enough to strengthen Patrick’s hand in the Senate, an increasingly progressive branch in recent years where Patrick always had a better chance of selling his wares.

The Senate may be moving toward the governor, but Murray hasn’t much appreciated his tactics: “I think you have to be careful when you speak and the words that you use if you want to move things ahead,” Murray said.

Even assuming the five Democrat non-voters, the speaker was short of the votes required to override a veto from Patrick with bloc opposition from Republicans, a splintered progressive caucus and at least a handful of Democrats opposed to new taxes.

Patrick, like most around these parts, is under the impression that the Speaker and the Senate President can pass anything they put their minds to. But House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey begged to differ.

“Very challenging to get the votes to pass a $500 million increase. It was very challenging. The higher that goes, the less support we have from the members,” Dempsey said. However, 81 gets it done if Patrick comes on board.

Dempsey followed the transportation financing debate with the release of the House Ways and Means budget, a $33.8 billion spending plan that clocked in $1 billion under Patrick’s budget, but included enough goodies give Patrick and legislative supporters something to think about.

The budget included increases in local aid and special education funding and enough money to avoid tuition and fee increases at UMass and the nine state universities. Dempsey cautioned that the economic recovery continues to be slow and revenues – such as the sales tax – unstable.

Developing the spending plan, even with new tax revenue baked in for transportation, was “still a challenge” according to Dempsey, requiring $719 million in one-time funding, including $350 million from the “rainy day” fund.

DeLeo and Dempsey sprinkled the budget with reforms that have percolated for years on Beacon Hill, including photo IDs for electronic benefits transfer card welfare beneficiaries, and the posting of Level II sex offenders online. But even still, House Minority Leader Brad Jones said the welfare fraud prevention efforts were “lacking teeth.”

Amendments to the budget poured in by the hundreds on Friday as House lawmakers sought to finish their work and vanish for the school vacation to rest up for a week of budget debates on the other side.

Murray also saw fit this week, as lawmakers moved closer to raising taxes on residents and business, to suggest it might also be time to give minimum-wage workers a raise. While everyone was watching for hints on transportation financing, Murray slipped into her Chamber of Commerce speech a call to begin the conversation about a “living wage.”

Reaction from the business audience was conditionally receptive: we’ll talk wages when you lower our energy and unemployment insurance costs. A battle for another day.

STORY OF THE WEEK: “It’s like the story of the three bears,” Sen. Karen Spilka said, explaining Beacon Hill’s tax-transportation debate in a way even a child could understand.

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