With three top Senate Democrats out of the country this week and the House showing no sense of urgency to resolve a disagreement with Gov. Deval Patrick over tolling and taxes, Patrick may have to make decisions about the affordability of items in the $34 billion state budget without knowing the fate of new revenues counted upon to balance the annual budget.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray planned to meet Monday afternoon without Patrick, who was working from his home in the Berkshires. And Murray is about to leave Massachusetts and head to Scotland for the week.
Murray plans to attend a National Conference of State Legislators symposium in the United Kingdom, along with Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg and Senate President Pro Tempore Richard Moore.
Days after Patrick sent a $500 million tax bill back to the Legislature with an amendment, DeLeo last week served notice that a formal session may be held on Wednesday, but the House met briefly on Monday morning and adjourned until Thursday, when an informal session is planned. The Senate also does not currently plan any formal sessions this week.
Patrick has until Friday to act on the state budget and announce any vetoes or amendments.
Murray told the News Service during a brief interview Monday that she might know more about the timetable to act on Patrick's amendment to a transportation financing bill after her meeting with DeLeo.
Asked if she were anxious about the lack of a finalized budget a week into the fiscal year, Murray said, "We passed a one-twelfth so we're good," referring to an interim budget to cover state spending in July.
Rep. Paul Donato, who presided over Monday's session, said the governor's amendment replacing potentially lost toll revenue on the turnpike in 2017 with another gas tax increase was being "digested" by the Committee on Bills in Third Reading, chaired by Danvers Democrat Rep. Theodore Speliotis.
"It appears we'll have to wait until they come up with some other suggestions," Donato said. When asked whether House leaders were considering an alternative amendment instead of simply rejecting the governor's overture, Donato said wasn't sure of the "inner workings of the committee."
By not quickly taking up Patrick's proposal to further raise the gas tax or keep the tolls from expiring in 2017, legislative leaders appear willing to leave their tax-raising legislation unfinished a week into the new fiscal year. By doing so, they run the risk that Patrick will veto their spending priorities since the budget bill is predicated on new revenues arriving from taxes on tobacco, gasoline and businesses and Patrick has repeatedly raised questions about finding adequate, sustainable revenues for transportation.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican, said the lack of action this week could point to several options being considered.
"You can go from the innocent and innocuous to the more Machiavellian. Maybe that they want a good vote total and to dangle vetoes over members heads to get them to vote a certain way," Jones said. "Or maybe there's some increased pressure being brought to bear or felt about these sales taxes on software services. It's not like the sin taxes on smokers. It's a pretty elemental part of our economy."
Jones also surmised that House leaders could simply want to minimize the number of formal sessions in July and address the transportation bill and budget vetoes in one day, rather than call members back to the Beacon Hill multiple times.
"The Senate leadership is in Scotland starting tomorrow, the governor is farming today. It's the peak of efficiency of one-party government," Jones said.
Patrick said last week that legislative leaders have understood "all along" his desire that their tax-raising proposal eventually generate at least $800 million in new long-term transportation revenues and made clear he won't support the bill without an amendment to his liking.
"I will not tell people this bill raises $800 million for transportation when it doesn't. To me this last point is a matter of public trust," Patrick said.
One House Democrat said he believes House leaders are trying to avoid a showdown with the governor by "keeping the lines of communication open." The legislator said there is also some concern among House leaders that progressive Democrats who have favored higher new revenues for transportation could "muddy the waters" if the House tried to override a possible veto of the financing and tax bill.
Speliotis said a compromise with the governor is "always possible," but chalked up the delay in addressing Patrick's amendment to the summer vacation calendar and the difficulty of rounding up members for a formal session.
"I just think more so, it's a sense of a little summer break. I don't think it means anything to be quite frank. I don't know what else to say beyond that. I don't think there's been any change in attitude here," Speliotis said.
Asked about trying to strike a new deal with Patrick, Speliotis said, "I don't know for sure. I think that's always possible, but I'm not overly optimistic."
Nearly a week ago, legislative leaders swiftly rejected Patrick's plan to shore up transportation financing legislation with added gas tax or toll revenues, with DeLeo and Murray knocking down Patrick's proposal as he was describing it to reporters in his office.
"Last week, the Legislature passed a carefully calibrated revenue proposal that solves long-standing financial problems within the transportation system," Murray and DeLeo said in a joint statement. "The administration's proposal tying the question of tolls in Western Massachusetts - a plan not even mentioned in its original bill - to a 4 cents gas tax increase places too high a burden on the taxpayers of our state. This threatens working families and businesses still fighting to overcome the financial downturn. Therefore, we will ask our respective chambers to reject the administration's proposal."
It's unclear when DeLeo and Murray will ask lawmakers to take that vote.
Donato acknowledged the time sensitivity for resolving the question of revenues for transportation and other spending in the budget, but said he hoped Patrick would accept the fiscal 2014 budget as approved by House and Senate lawmakers.
"I think the speaker's position is clear in that he already indicated he was a little disappointed the governor felt he had to make an amendment to the transportation bill and he did not want to raise additional taxes in the Commonwealth. He felt the information he gave to the members and what the members voted on was sufficient," Donato said. "I'm not sure what the governor's attitude is going to be toward the rest of the budget. We would hope that he would look at what was presented and make a decision that the House and Senate came up with a good compromise."
Speaking for himself and not his committee, Speliotis said he's not keen on the idea of tinkering with the transportation compromise to guarantee additional revenues for transportation beyond what was already approved.
"I'm not too anxious to go any higher. We've made a commitment. I think this was well thought out," Speliotis said. Though he said the votes in the House would be "close" if it came to overriding a veto, Speliotis said, "I think we met the governor more than half way on this."
When he amended the transportation financing legislation, Patrick chose to return the entire bill rather than just sections of it, potentially opening up the issue for another full debate in the House and Senate, which Democratic leaders may prefer to avoid.
Jones said he has spoken with some in the Republican caucus about strategy, but has not made any final decisions on amendments that might be offered.
"Certainly I think there would be a desire for more than just a quick in-and-out to discuss some key aspects of the bill, particularly the software sales tax," Jones said.