BOSTON — Right up there with casinos, transportation financing will go down as one of the epic battles fought between Gov. Deval Patrick and the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Only this time, there’s more on the line than just a hand of Blackjack.
Patrick took an ax to the fiscal 2014 budget on Friday afternoon, slashing $240 million in transportation spending needed to avert fare increases and service cuts on the MBTA, and reducing unrestricted local aid for cities and towns by 20 percent. He didn’t want to do it. But he had to, he said. State law prohibits an unbalanced budget.
All that pain could be avoided if the governor, House and Senate could get on the same page with regards to transportation financing legislation that raises taxes by $500 million and is necessary to support most of the budget spending Patrick rejected.
“My ask to the Legislature is simply this: Plug the hole in the transportation bill. Let’s do it now. And we can put that and this budget to rest and get back to the work of growing the economy,” Patrick said Friday, unswayed by the fact that the “hole” he referred to doesn’t come into play until 2017 when someone else will control the purse strings.
Compromise, however, is never easy. And Patrick insisted it was nothing personal, just policy, some evidence to the contrary. Tensions, needless to say, were high.
On a week in July when legislators might have comfortably assumed months ago these policy battles would be settled, vacations proceeded unabated with much left unfinished on Beacon Hill. Capitol corridors remained largely quiet except for Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty and Sen. Katherine Clark’s marathon Judiciary Committee hearing on 200 bills that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
And politicians like Sen. Daniel Wolf, Treasurer Steven Grossman, and the five running for Congress had to compete for political bandwidth with the compelling drama at the State House, as they softly rolled out their campaigns for governor in 2014 and jockeyed for poll position in the money race to replace Ed Markey.
Lawmakers could have acted on the governor’s amendment to replace lost toll revenue after 2017 with another gas tax increase. But instead leaders decided to wait for Patrick to play his full hand and act on the budget bills before him. Meantime, Senate President Therese Murray took her top two deputies to Scotland for a legislative conference, leaving House Speaker Robert DeLeo at home to watch Patrick’s handling of the legislative work product.
Patrick signed a supplemental budget bill, and said he would support adding photo ID to welfare benefit cards if the Legislature agrees to a three-year study of its effectiveness in reducing fraud. But he used the V-word (not a threat, he said) for the first time with regard to transportation, promising to veto the financing bill if not changed to his liking and using his power to reject millions in spending cherished by lawmakers.
Win or lose, Patrick has become sensitive to the perception that he’s in danger of becoming as formidable as a surfer in a Sharknado.
“I haven’t won every issue, and I don’t think there’s a governor anywhere who has. So if we don’t get this exactly the way I want, I still have 18 months. I’m going to keep working. I’m going to keep focused,” Patrick said.
Nobody, including the governor’s office, is under any illusion that his recommendation to trigger another gas tax increase if toll revenue declines will be accepted by the House or Senate. Whether there is an alternative compromise in the works is harder to discern.
Publicly, DeLeo and Murray have stood by the transportation bill they adopted, which raises $500 million in new taxes and redirects $800 million in new spending to transportation by 2018, including western Turnpike toll revenue that Patrick worries will disappear. And yet, the governor continues to express optimism that a “good” bill is within reach. Whether that’s for show or based on informed speculation is anyone’s guess.
Ironically, gas prices actually went up 3 cents on their own this week without the proposed 3-cent gas tax hike that Patrick has suggested and which legislative leaders say is too much.
Patrick and DeLeo spoke privately on Thursday, and the governor says he is also reaching out to individual members, though he says he knows how difficult it is to convince anyone to vote against the wishes of leadership.
So has the speaker indicated privately any willingness to budge? “I’m not going to comment on that, but don’t read more into my not commenting than the fact that I’m not commenting. The speaker and I are talking,” Patrick said, and he hopes to do the same with Murray when she returns from Scotland.
The three leaders missed a chance to talk face-to-face on Monday when Patrick elected to stay in the Berkshires and work from his home there, while DeLeo and Murray met on Beacon Hill without him. “Is that high-speed internet up out there yet? I don’t know. I’m here,” Murray quipped.
The Plymouth Democrat’s tone softened quite considerably by Friday when her office issued a statement while she was traveling in Scotland, using works like “respect” and “value” when referring to the governor.
Maybe absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Two full weeks into the fiscal year, Beacon Hill leaders make little progress toward resolution on signature transportation and budget issues.