State House Roundup: 'On Kind Of A Swing'

Hours before Gov. Deval Patrick addressed the state on live television, the Seer of Barre made a prediction, "The governor does have, and he's a good leader, a propensity to throw long.” Sen. Stephen Brewer was right, and somewhere in Swampscott, Charlie Baker was muttering, “I told you so,” under his breath.

By now, everyone knows that Patrick, the governor of “generational responsibility,” wants to impose what is likely the largest tax hike in state history, save for those heady colonial days when taxes didn’t exist, and then they did.

For a mere $1.9 billion, Patrick told lawmakers and the public that by saying yes they could almost have it all: universal early childhood education, less highway congestion, a T than runs later into the night, and commuter rail service to New Bedford, Cape Cod, Springfield and New York City.

Earlier in the week, a jacketless Transportation Secretary Richard Davey stood before an anxious crowd at UMass Boston - lacking only a black turtleneck and light-blue jeans – to declare, "The current system we have today we cannot afford.” He then explained that projects like South Coast rail and the Green Line extension don’t actually have a funding source without new revenue, something Republicans have been saying for years.

Buried in the governor’s plan to hike the state income tax to 6.25 percent and lower the sales tax to 4.5 percent are other ideas to take a nickel here and a quarter there, including periodic MBTA fare, turnpike toll and RMV fee increases and a gas-tax tied to inflation. What do taxpayers get in return? Better education that leaves no four-year-old behind, and a safer, more accessible network of public transportation.

While this, on its own, would have made for a newsy enough week, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray thickened the stew with an announcement on Friday that he would not run for governor in 2014, a startling surprise though not necessarily a contradiction to his remarks in November that he “would like to be governor.”

Murray still might like to be governor, but he said he’s not willing to skimp on his day job or take the time away from his young family that it would take to run for governor. By removing himself from the equation, the field is “wide open” for others in 2104, as Democratic Party Chair John Walsh put it Friday.

Treasurer Steven Grossman, Sen. Dan Wolf and Dr. Don Berwick were already considering running, but with Murray out does Martha Coakley take another look? Mayors like Kim Driscoll, who said she would never run against Murray, have something new to think about. And could two Somervillians – Joe Curtatone and Mike Capuano – take a shot?

Murray saved himself from having to choose his words extra carefully in the coming months as the administration tries to sell tax increases and tax code fairness on Beacon Hill, pressing an issue that will follow everyone involved out on the campaign trail in two years.

To look at any single proposal would be wrongheaded, Patrick’s team insisted in the days following his State of the Commonwealth address. One must think instead about the whole picture and how each tax code change fits together like a puzzle, they said.

Patrick has always favored a graduated income tax, which is prohibited by the state’s constitution. His plan is basically the next best thing, a combination of tax increases, decreases, deductions and exemptions that he says at the end of the day will cost the lower-to-middle class less, and those earning $50,000 a year or higher progressively more.

Two years before a statewide election when most lawmakers will put their names back on the ballot, the governor’s shoot-the-moon gambit on taxes begged the question of timing and whether there is ever a moment when tax increases are a popular bet to make.

On that question this week there was agreement from Mr. Patrick and Ms. Jennifer Nassour: never.

“There is no good time to raise taxes,” Patrick said in his speech, joking after he delivered the line that he knew while practicing the speech that this would be the moment a hush fell over the chamber. He was right, but he broke the ice.

Nassour, the former GOP party leader who spent her evening doing color commentary on NECN, came to a similar conclusion. So why now?

Because it’s not 2010, when Patrick the candidate said he had no plans to raise broad-based taxes? Because it’s 2013 and there’s not an election this year and Patrick has no plans to put his name before Massachusetts voters? Because Patrick is running out of time to advance the spending heavy policy agenda he laid out before he was elected the first time but which got jammed by the recession? Because it’s been almost a generation since Mass. voters demanded a 5 percent income tax rate, only to see its dip stall at 5.25 percent, and all he really has to do is convince Bob and Terry, who may be leaving soon, and they can do the rest?

In other words, it’s his legacy window, a fact not lost on the early opponents of his plan: "This is about taxpayers funding the Deval Patrick legacy project, and quite frankly I don't think the taxpayers want to or can afford to,” House Minority Leader Brad Jones said.

You know you’ve done something big on taxes when you’ve coaxed the Boston Herald editorial page into endorsing a modest gas tax increase. And as any student of state politics can attest, maybe that’s been his plan all along. Throw the Hail Mary in the first quarter, and celebrate when you win on a game-ending field goal. Don’t forget, Patrick meets regularly, and privately, with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray so they have plenty of opportunities to discuss the best way to shepherd a tax hike into the end zone.

Unlike health care, gay marriage or casino gambling before it, Patrick’s push for the largest state tax increase in recent memory will demand a level of leadership and coercion the governor has never needed, or tried, to effectuate.

He seems to know it, too, finishing his week with visits to Worcester, Haverhill, Lynn and Quincy, not coincidentally the homes of legislative leaders whose support he will need to sell the full Legislature on his vision.

"To say, "Hell no, we won't go,' isn't necessarily a good vetting process," said Sen. Brewer, the recipient of a Patrick visit on Friday to tout investments in infrastructure.

Rep. Patricia Haddad, a Somerset Democrat and top deputy to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, summed up perfectly the corner Patrick has backed legislators into.
"It's hard not to think they're great ideas, but I do have to worry what it means for the people in my district. We have a (higher) unemployment rate than anywhere in the state, but we're the ones who want the South Coast rail so badly, so I'm on kind of a swing," Haddad said.

The question is how many will jump.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Patrick pitches for new taxes with nothing to lose in 2014, while Tim Murray reaches the conclusion he doesn’t want that job badly enough.

This program aired on January 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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