On heels of House vote, Governor eyes larger tax package

While legislative leaders are publicly sticking to their plan to pass a $500 million tax hike bill, Gov. Deval Patrick said Tuesday he’s talking to state senators about other options and sees a way to pass a larger tax increase.

On the heels of the House’s 97-55 vote just before midnight Monday for a $500 million plan, the debate over taxes and transportation investments shifted to the state Senate, which plans to take up a tax bill this week.

Patrick said he was engaging with senators on potential amendments to the House bill, but has yet to speak to either Speaker Robert DeLeo or Senate President Therese Murray about a compromise.

“I think there’s a way to get to a number that is in the middle between where I started and where the House is in their vote, and at that level, to do something important and long-term and do lasting good in transportation and education, but we still have a lot of work to get there,” Patrick told reporters.

The House plan would shore up finances at the MBTA and the Department of Transportation, but Patrick has called it an inadequate fix for the state’s long-term transportation needs and has threatened to veto it. There was insufficient support in the House Monday for a veto override and the bill awaits opposition in the Senate too.

The governor in January proposed a larger slate of tax reforms to generate $1.9 billion in new revenue for transportation and education, but indicated that privately he has suggested alternative totals and methods of collecting the new revenue with legislative leaders.

A spokesman for DeLeo could not immediately say whether the House received offers of compromise from Patrick, but the governor hinted that he could be looking for new revenue in the neighborhood of $1.2 billion.

“I think there’s a number between where they are and where I am, and I mean really, exactly between where they are and where I started where we can make some really meaningful improvement in our transportation system and take some first meaningful steps on the education side as well,” Patrick said.

Patrick said he has not spoken to DeLeo or Murray since they rolled out their revenue proposal last Tuesday. “I have reached out. I have not spoken to them,” Patrick said.

Murray issued a statement on Tuesday morning supporting DeLeo and the vote taken by the House.

“The House took a very difficult and important vote yesterday in passing our joint transportation financing bill. The Senate is next. It is good, responsible legislation that will solve current problems in our transportation system without hurting our recovery and putting unnecessary burdens on working families who are still trying to make it,” Murray said in her statement.

“Our plan requires transportation agencies to contribute a fair share of their budget and follow through on unmet reforms. It also sets the table for future investments in transportation as the Commonwealth comes back into economic strength and stability. I will continue to support this plan, and I stand with the Speaker as we go through this process,” she said.

The lack of communication between the three Democrats has not softened Patrick’s insistence that compromise is still possible, and the governor, noting legislative leaders have committed to a transportation funding solution, seemed to suggest that House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey may have been bluffing last week when he said House leaders were prepared to “move on” to other issues should the $500 million tax proposal fail.

If the Legislature fails to direct new funding to the MBTA this year, transit officials have already said 19 percent fare increases and service cuts would be necessary to close the roughly $118 million budget gap at the agency.

“I don’t think that is likely to happen,” Patrick said, when asked if he was prepared to accept an outcome of no new revenue for transportation.

Kirsten Hughes, chairwoman of the MassGOP, predicted that voters will hold Democrats accountable for raising taxes during next year’s election.

“While I respectfully disagree with Governor Patrick on his reasons, I agree he should veto the $500 million tax increase passed by the Democrats in the House. It is surely frustrating to hardworking families to see the Governor and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature reflexively turn to tax increases when they have failed to truly reform state government,” Hughes said in a statement.

The Senate plans to take up the transportation financing bill on Thursday, and the Senate Ways and Means Committee is working on a redraft of the legislation that Chairman Sen. Stephen Brewer said would not deviate markedly from the framework of the House bill.

“I suspect that the main structure will be similar,” Brewer told the News Service Tuesday morning, declining to offer any details about the Senate’s plans for the bill, saying only that it was the subject of ongoing conversations.

As it did in the House, the tax bill will likely face opposition in the Senate from Republicans who disapprove of tax hikes and from a core of liberal Democrats who like Patrick want a larger tax package.

“I’m not sure that the framework of this bill is a winning framework,” Patrick said.

Unlike the House, the Senate features internal rules that enable any member to unilaterally delay action on legislation by making a motion to “lay on the table” any legislation.

The motion came into play, for example, during the heated debate over legislation authorizing casinos, when opponents of that bill deployed the rule to extend debate.

The Senate has also scheduled a formal session for Wednesday and held its session open Tuesday in what appears to be an attempt to pass an order laying out an amendment deadline on Wednesday for Thursday’s debate. There could be an objection to that order from liberal Senate Democrats who want to slow down the process long enough and learn more about spending associated with new taxes in the House budget due out on Wednesday.