State House News Service

State House Roundup: Pop, Bang, Fizzle

BOSTON — Maybe the mood just struck him.

On the eve of Boston’s celebration of American independence, House Speaker Robert DeLeo took one step out of his office door to deliver a blunt, declarative message to the state’s chief executive: governor, you’re wrong.

Now let’s see who has the votes.

Forget party unity. This was a display of American democracy at its most basic, a functional separation of powers deciding that age-old question of taxation.

So after the fireworks faded above the Esplanade, the fuse was still burning at the State House. Heading into the weekend, it remained to be seen whether Gov. Deval Patrick’s rejection of a transportation financing plan, and a verbal takedown of his alternative from legislative leaders, would turn out to be a dud, or blow up the whole debate.

Back in the saddle after a week on the West Coast, Gov. Patrick delivered his verdict on a transportation financing plan that would hike taxes by $500 million and deliver, at least according to lawmakers who wrote the bill, about $800 million in new funding for infrastructure improvements and public transit. His response? Not good enough.

Without a guarantee that turnpike tolls from Newton to New York remain beyond 2017, Patrick says the $800 million may never materialize. And so he returned the bill with a proposal to raise the gas tax an additional 4 to 5 cents per gallon if the tolls do come down in four years.

And there it stands, the one major piece of legislation to gain traction so far this session besides the budget, caught between the executive and legislative branches over a disagreement about tolling.

Sometimes forgotten in the back-and-forth of this debate is that legislators have moved from not-the-time-to raise-taxes to time-to-raise-taxes to their latest posture: not-the-time-to-raise-taxes by that much.

On this there is agreement: the gas tax should go up 3 cents per gallon, cigarettes should cost $1 more per pack, and businesses should pay the sales tax on software design services.

The subtle, but significant difference was not lost on would-be ballot foes parsing DeLeo’s emphatic rejection of Patrick’s suggestion that if turnpike tolls come down in four years, then the gas tax should go up, again. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray said another gas tax increase in four years would be too much. “This threatens working families and businesses still fighting to overcome the financial downturn,” they said.

“Laughable,” MassGOP spokesman Tim Buckley responded when apprised of the concern for taxpayers’ wallets.

Patrick has artfully avoided using the term “veto” in his comments on the Legislature’s financing plan and his intentions for dealing with it. There could be good reason.

The odds for the governor’s amendment to pass are long. So maybe it’s intentional that Patrick has used phrases like “will not accept” and “won’t sign” when referring to the plan to raise gas, cigarette and software sales taxes, considering that the death of the bill would require a scalpel for the budget and an explanation to T riders for why fares will go up again. Maybe, just maybe, the governor is willing to let the bill become law without his signature.

With the holiday week beckoning, the House and Senate made quick work on Monday of a $34 billion budget deal struck on Sunday night. The spending plan included enough new funding for higher education to avoid tuition and fee hikes at UMass and public universities and community colleges and to move 2,000 kids off the waiting list for pre-school programs. The budget also calls for some welfare reforms, like photo ID on benefit cards, while the House reviews Murray’s more comprehensive reform bill.

But the budget this year more than usual is far from a settled matter, because it depends on revenue tied up in the transportation bill, the failure of one could doom the other, at least in its current form.

The health care bill signed by Patrick Friday that aligns the state system with the federal Affordable Care Act also did not have a smooth ride to becoming law. The Obama administration’s decision this week to delay an employer mandate to provide workers with health care means the bill approved by the Legislature could give businesses in Massachusetts a year-long reprieve from the mandate that was key part of the state’s 2006 law.

Patrick told reporters he will try to find a way to “bridge” the issue until the federal government is ready to enforce its mandate, but what that means is anyone’s guess.

On a lighter note, the July 4th festivities in Boston went off without a hitch, albeit under the watchful eye of an increased law enforcement presence, a diminished crowd in stifling heat and the lack of a national television feed for the first time in years.

Patrick was there was there with First Lady Diane to take it in. So were Scott Brown and Gail Huff, watching their daughter Ayla perform live at the Hatch Shell.

Meanwhile, Senator-elect Edward Markey was busy preparing for his likely Wednesday swearing-in ceremony to the U.S. Senate. The Governor’s Council is set to certify the June 25 election results on Wednesday morning, officially sending interim Sen. Mo Cowan packing, though Cowan said this week the office is boxed up and he’s ready for a summer of relaxation before he begins writing his next chapter.

STORY OF THE WEEKS: Speaker DeLeo challenges Patrick on transportation financing. He’s been here before and lost, but this time seems to have the upper hand.

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