State House Roundup: Gauging Interest

Without looking back, Massachusetts lawmakers ambled into their unofficial August recess, uncertain whether the nation is on the fast track to a debt default that could crush their constituents with higher interest rates or unpaid benefit checks.

But at least the people will get their sales tax holiday.

The state-level implications of a deadlocked Congress as the nation approaches its debt limit – around Aug. 2 – are anyone’s guess, as Gov. Deval Patrick and lawmakers made clear this week. President Obama warned Friday that a default could lead to a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating, which in turn would lead to higher interest rates on mortgages, car loans and credit card bills. Others, mainly Republicans, have shrugged off Obama’s warnings as hyperbolic.

Aside from sudden interest in the state’s cash-flow capacity in the event of a default, officials appeared to cup their hands over their eyes and hone in on more parochial issues, such as a reorganization of the state court system and a widely supported overhaul of state alimony laws. The sales tax holiday grabbed most of the attention during a week that featured little movement on other more complex policy issues.

Patrick intends to sign the tax holiday bill that landed on his desk Friday, his signature essentially wiping away what has historically been about $20 million to $25 million in tax collections, a boon for retailers but one a few dozen liberal members questioned while the nation careens toward a potential fiscal nightmare.

Patrick criticized the sales tax holiday as a political gimmick more than an economic jolt but promised to sign it anyway, in part because it’s a “relatively small expenditure.”

In other news, the state’s top judges told lawmakers on Wednesday that they could alleviate many of their purportedly cataclysmic budget woes with about a $30 million infusion of cash.

That lawmakers were so willing to part with sales tax revenue after approving a budget that decimated a range of public health programs was even more curious after the admission of the governor and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer that the tax holiday is more political tool than economic engine. Even the liberal members who silently opposed it in the House didn’t bother to show up at the State House Friday despite an opportunity to block it, or at least speak up. The more vocal Senate Democrats who ripped the sales tax holiday were also absent Friday.

Patrick spent his week wrapping up a statewide “conversation” tour, making little public effort to promote his policy agenda, while quietly girding for additional changes to state pension laws and debate on a signature health system overhaul in the fall. The governor coasted into the dog days with a relatively high approval rating and a full year to enact his remaining priorities.

When Patrick was confronted Thursday with questions about tax policy on WTKK, a venue where he typically offers more substantive dialogue than he does in his exchanges with the State House press corps, Patrick ripped the sales tax as “regressive” and said he hoped the state would have a discussion about its entire tax code.


Patrick, now in his fifth year, appears in no hurry to lead the conversation.

“It’s a very involved thing and I think what I want to do, and beyond – I’m not just talking about one tax. I am very interested in a comprehensive re-look at the tax code. How do we make it simpler? How do we make it easier on people?” he said, adding, “It’s so time for that because [the tax code] is marbled with all this stuff that is past its time.”

Patrick also poured gas on the smoldering gambling debate by digging in on his insistence that he would support no more than one competitively bid slot parlor in any expansion of gambling in Massachusetts. Lawmakers have marked that debate for September, but Patrick used his WTKK forum to reignite the conversation.

Part of Patrick’s concern, he said, is that he doesn’t want to guarantee slot licenses to wealthy racetrack owners. On Wednesday, Patrick signed a bill carving out a special deal to permit Raynham dog track – which no longer conducts live racing thanks to a voter-supported ban that took effect last year – to continue operating, essentially, as an off-track betting facility. Similar licenses for Suffolk Downs and Plainridge Racecourse, both live horse racing venues, require that they conduct a minimum number of races each year in order to maintain their ability to simulcast out-of-state races. Administration aides said simulcasting will help Raynham preserve jobs, an argument the track has used in its pursuit of slots.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers hit the road as a looming debt crisis hits home.

DIGGING OUT: Gov. Deval Patrick reserved his sharpest barbs of the week for “the media” – the overused broad-brush term often thrown around to generalize about the complex and multi-faceted world of blogs, TV, radio, wire and print publications. Patrick made little effort to conceal that his real beef was with the Boston Globe, which he accused of attempting to “repackage” previously known structural concerns about the Big Dig to suggest that Department of Transportation officials are being less-than-forthcoming about tunnel safety. “I think as long as the media try to repackage information we’ve all known about and has been made public, yeah it’s going to stir up the kind of anxiety that you’re talking about,” Patrick said. A Globe report last weekend pointed out that a public report to the board of the Department of Transportation excluded some of the more alarming findings about tunnel safety and electrical corrosion documented by the project’s chief overseer. Under the subject line “Infiltration, Tunnel Leaks,” officials wrote in one report: “As inflow into the tunnels generally only affects discharge volumes and presents a permit issue it is generally not detrimental to the tunnel structure or safety as it is quickly captured by the tunnel drainage system. However, infiltration of groundwater or tunnel leaks are a more vexing problems as they are widespread throughout the tunnel and are the cause of safety concerns and has a damaging effect on the tunnel structure and equipment.” Administration officials have publicly and repeatedly emphasized their belief that the tunnels are safe and leak maintenance is standard.

This program aired on July 29, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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