Courage and tax hikes, Governor Patrick presses solons

Lawmakers need “political courage” to raise the income tax to invest more in education and transportation, Gov. Deval Patrick told hundreds of public college students, who would see a bump in state support under the governor’s tax and spending plans.

Patrick said many lawmakers fear they will not get reelected if they vote to raise the income tax a full point to 6.25 percent and lower the sales tax to 4.5 percent, as well as eliminate a slew of personal and business deductions. But the governor called it a “generational responsibility” to spend more money on public higher education, and said lawmakers are underestimating the public by not backing the tax plan.

“I am here to tell you we are not going to be able to reform our way to an affordable higher education system. We have to invest in it,” Patrick told the crowd gathered in Gardner Auditorium.

Patrick’s critics said his administration needs to do more to eliminate waste and abuse in state government and knocked tax policies he’s recommended that will make it tougher for families to pay for college.

Kirsten Hughes, chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said eliminating certain deductions, as Patrick has proposed, would take $73 million out of the pockets of parents and students.

Lawmakers need “political courage to cut where it is necessary,” Hughes said. “It is not courageous to take money out of the pockets of hardworking folks in the state of Massachusetts,” she said.

Hughes, who graduated from New York University and New England School of Law, said she pays more than $700 a month in student loans. Most graduates are saddled with loans, she said, and for the governor “to parade students up there is extremely hypocritical.”

But students from the five University of Massachusetts campuses, 15 community colleges, and nine public universities told lawmakers they need more state support to stay in college.

UMass Boston student Alexis Marvel said she grew up living at near-poverty levels. “My mother worked hard to keep the fridge full,” she said. She hoped college would give her a better chance in life. But, she says she is already $20,000 in debt in her second year, and “there is no food in my fridge.”

“I know I am not alone. I know that my story is your story,” she told the crowd. “We are here today because we believe education is a right and not a privilege.”

Patrick, who is not running for reelection, told reporters after the event he has told lawmakers he will do whatever he can to support them in their reelection bids if they meet resistance for backing his $1.9 billion tax proposal.

Patrick said the state could not boost education investments without the tax hike.

“There is a need, I think everybody has acknowledged, for new revenue. That is, as I said inside, not to let anybody off the hook for getting greater cost-efficiencies. That work has to continue,” Patrick said. “But if we are going to make college affordable and accessible for people, and in that sense keep the public in public higher ed, then we are going to have to deal with the need for additional revenue.”

Although they are interested in raising new revenues to pay for transportation system investments, lawmakers have been less than enthusiastic about Patrick’s overall proposal, questioning the ability of taxpayers to shoulder heavier burdens.

Speaker Robert DeLeo, who thought Patrick would propose a smaller income tax hike, has heard “grave concerns” about the scope of the tax hikes recommended by the governor. House budget writers are finishing fiscal 2014 budget hearings this week and plan to release their redrafted version of Patrick’s $34.8 billion spending plan on April 10.

“I am not under any illusions. Everybody I have talked to, including every member of the Legislature, thinks these are the right investments, and most people are nervous about the means to pay for them. I think it is time for us to be honest with each other and with the general public that if these are worthy outcomes then we are going to have to ask people to sacrifice for them,” Patrick said.

Patrick’s fiscal 2014 budget allocates $152 million to make public colleges and universities more affordable. It would move the state closer to returning to a 50-50 split between the state’s contribution to public universities and tuition and fees paid by students and families. The budget proposal also boosts funding for the MassGrant scholarship program.

Critics of the budget contend that it includes provisions that will hurt students and parents trying to pay for school. A tuition tax deduction, the personal exemption for students aged 19 and older, and the employer-provided education assistance are among the deductions the governor wants to eliminate.

Rep. Angelo D’Emilia (R-Bridgewater) a House Ways and Means Committee member, criticized the frequent use of the word investment by administration officials when discussing revenues from new taxes.

“I am finding that here in Massachusetts the definition of this word really means higher taxes. The Governor’s proposal for $1.9 billion in new taxes is outrageous when we continue to hear about waste, fraud, and abuse occurring within certain state agencies,” D’Emilia wrote Tuesday on the House Republicans’ blog. “The Department of Transitional Assistance, and the state’s Electronic Benefits Transfer and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are all prime examples. Perhaps if we started by addressing these issues we could begin to discuss solutions for our fiscal needs.”

When speaking to students, Patrick compared his plan to investments made by the World War II generation, which fought a war, rebuilt Europe and Japan, and then strengthened the United States by building superhighways, he said. The baby boomer generation has lived off the work and investments of the older generation, Patrick said.

“We have to step up right now, in that same spirit. For a long, long, long time, we have been in a way self-defeating about how to build a better, stronger commonwealth,” he said.

He told the students to “engage with members of the Legislature who are nervous and uncomfortable about the so-called tax vote. Remind them that taxes are the price of civilization.”

“There are going to be people who are deeply concerned that this vote may jeopardize their reelection. That is a political reality for a lot of good people in this building. Don’t belittle that,” Patrick added.

Willis Chen, a 20-year old UMass Amherst sophomore, said he hopes to convince lawmakers to support the funding boost so students are not forced to pay more next year. Chen, who receives a $10,000 scholarship, said his parents would be able to absorb increases, but it would be a struggle for many of his friends. “I know a few friends who have problems paying for school, one who barely gets by,” he said.

Randall Phillis, president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the faculty union at UMass Amherst, said the shift from state support to a heavier reliance on tuition and fees has created a significant burden on students and families, and is “putting a significant challenge on the strength of the university.”

The university admits more students to keep costs down, which creates larger classes, fewer class options, and diminished laboratory experiences, according to Phillis.

“With the restoration of funding, with the correction of the tax code and allocation to public education, it would be possible to provide students with real life opportunities and small group experiences to facilitate better student learning,” Phillis said.

Patrick’s call for new tax revenues in the state’s early education system appear on the verge of getting a boost. According to the Massachusetts Association for Early Education & Care, 85 House members are calling for a major early education investment in the upcoming House budget bill. Reps. Linda Forry (D-Dorchester) and Rep. John Binienda (D-Worcester) plan to join activists Wednesday afternoon at the State House for an event where education providers will thank them for their support.