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State House Roundup: A Taxing Summer

This article is more than 7 years old.

A mere five days from now drivers will pay at least 3 cents more for a gallon of gas. Smokers will pay an extra buck for their fix. And businesses will pay sales taxes to modernize their computer systems.

Read that again. Taxes are going up.

The Legislature this week voted overwhelmingly to override Gov. Deval Patrick’s veto and enact a $500 million tax bill intended to finance the state’s transportation system. The tax-raising reality — perhaps because it’s been nearly a foregone conclusion since April — has been somewhat blurred in the debate over whether the money would be enough to forestall fare hikes on the T and build projects like South Coast rail. That’s still an open question.

But to hear House Minority Leader Brad Jones describe it, Democratic leaders have become so good at this tax exercise that House Speaker Robert DeLeo could be mistaken in the halls for David Copperfield.

“Keep your eye on this shiny object,” Jones warned before the 123-33 House vote that brought the long, tortured, yet predictable debate over transportation financing to a merciful end this week in time for lawmakers to take their expected August vacations.

The substance of the bill took a backseat over the past month to the occasionally terse back-and-forth between Patrick and Legislature over whether the bill contained enough guaranteed new revenue, and whether an increasingly sidelined governor had the muscle to bend House and Senate leaders any more than he already had.

No shortage of headline grabbing stories — from the Aaron Hernandez murder investigation to the James "Whitey" Bulger trial — diverted attention from Beacon Hill. And then came news of the horrifying South Boston abduction and murder of Amy Lord, on Wednesday no less, as votes were being cast.

Democratic leaders head into what’s expected to be the final week of formal work on Beacon Hill until September feeling pretty good about themselves. DeLeo basked in the overwhelming support of House Democrats in his non-personal tiff with the governor, the 123-33 vote a signal nonetheless to Patrick: Don’t mess with Winthrop.

Senate President Therese Murray, likewise, had little to worry about. Her branch voted 35-5 to override, clearing the way for another series of votes restoring over $422 million in spending to the annual budget, including the sacrosanct local aid account slashed by the governor.

Press releases were sent out touting the Legislature’s commitment to local aid, and trumpeting a planned vote next week for a sales tax holiday in August, now a near annual traditional for which pols like to build suspense anyway.

The votes brought to a halt DeLeo’s strong resistance to new or higher taxes, a stance he adopted in the years since the last major tax hike, the 2009 sales tax increase orchestrated by House leaders. But DeLeo was still billing himself as a guardian of the taxpayers’ wallets.

"Hopefully they'll say Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray didn't make it as bad as it could have been," DeLeo told reporters curious about his view toward drivers who will have to pay the price of this week’s actions.

The carefree response was that of a man informed not long before that he would not be a target of the U.S. attorney’s ongoing investigation into Probation Department patronage — $300,000 in legal fees well spent.

Republicans weren’t sure whether they should cry, or pop the champagne corks.

On the one hand, the small GOP minority was helpless to stop a $500 million tax hike they warned would hurt the middle class and make Massachusetts less competitive in the tech marketplace. But it also gave the party a ready-made strategy to challenge Democrats in next year’s elections.

“This gives people a reason to run. We don't have to ask them. This infuriates them," said MassGOP Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes.

Patrick had basically given up this week on trying persuade lawmakers to come to his side, spending the day before the override vote in Chicago volunteering with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn “gleaning” pears at a local food bank as payment for losing a Stanley Cup bet.

It didn’t matter much that he was out of state. He couldn’t convince the progressive Democrats that it was worth prolonging the fight and even lost most of the conservative Democrats who opposed the tax hikes in the bill, but were afraid that starting from scratch might lead to a bigger revenue package.

Rep. Stephen DiNatale, a Fitchburg Democrat, was one of the Democrats who had voted against the Legislature’s financing bill, but voted to override the governor’s veto. And he wasn’t exactly concerned about 2014 blowback.

“If they want to come after me with a candidate who's even more moderate, that's for the Republican Party to determine and I welcome any opposition. Take your best shot, folks. Good luck to you," DiNatale said.

Voters will have the final say whether they disapprove of lawmakers’ decision to ask them to pay more for roads, bridges and buses. In the meantime, candidates are raiding pockets in a different way, none more successful than state Sen. Barry Finegold.

Mid-year campaign finance reports were due this week, and the Andover Democrat and prospective Democratic candidate for treasurer reported raking in over $286,000 from January to June, more than any other declared candidate for statewide office in 2014.

Boston Magazine’s banner Web headline said it all: Finegold Makes It Rain.

STORY OF THE WEEK: It’s finally over. The T is funded, taxes are going up and summer can truly begin.

NO U-TURNS: Remember former Woburn Rep. Patrick Natale, perhaps best remembered for poking his finger in the chest of Charley Murphy on the House floor while the two were running for state Senate? Well, Natale has been plotting a political comeback in a three-way race for mayor of Woburn. But his campaign hit a speed bump – or more literally an orange traffic cone – last week when the 44-year-old attorney was arrested in Seabrook New Hampshire at a sobriety checkpoint for driving under the influence. Natale told the local newspaper that he did nothing wrong, claiming he passed a field sobriety test and three breathalyzers before refusing a fourth breath test and being booked. “I have no idea why I was even pulled over," Natale told the Daily Times Chronicle. "I wasn't speeding, I didn't run a crosswalk, and I didn't cross a yellow line.” But New Hampshire State Police told the News Service that Granite State prosecutors will allege that as Natale approached the checkpoint he “did a u-turn, reversing direction and driving through the traffic cones to avoid being stopped. He was stopped a short distance away and arrested for DWI.” It could be worse. He could be Anthony Weiner.

This program aired on July 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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