As transit advocates shut down Beacon Street, tax bill debate stirs

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 8, 2013…..As frustrated taxi drivers and weary tourists looked on, public transit activists blocked Beacon Street for about 15 minutes Monday, making the case for more funding to avert future fare increases on senior citizens and disabled riders. Four activists were arrested.

Inside the State House, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey launched floor debate on a $500 million tax plan, calling the economic recovery "one of the weakest" and saying slow growth makes it difficult to support all of the spending priorities outlined by Gov. Deval Patrick in his $34.8 billion fiscal 2014 budget, which relies on $1.9 billion in new taxes.

"We have to do what we can afford to do," said Dempsey (D-Haverhill), outlining both the bill's approach to tax increases and his forthcoming rewrite of Patrick's budget due out on Wednesday.

While the bill is just emerging for debate, Dempsey called it the "House and Senate transportation finance" plan and recommended its passage. He called the tax plan “a balanced approach understanding economic realities that we continue to live in,” but acknowledged some colleagues want higher taxes included and others oppose any tax hikes.

In the early going, House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Patricia Haddad ruled out of order an amendment offered by Rep. Tim Toomey (D-Cambridge) increasing the income tax rate tax to 5.95 percent and raising the personal tax exemption for an individual to $11,000 and $17,000 for a head of household.

House Republicans and liberal Democrats also came up short Monday in their push for state aid to help the MBTA pay Big Dig debt. Proponents of a Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) amendment calling for state contract assistance for MBTA debt obligations stemming from the Central Artery project mustered 46 votes of support, with 104 members voting against the proposal. Sciortino said sales tax revenues long earmarked for the T have never met expectations and the agency has struggled with Big Dig debt costs.

During introductory remarks in the House debate Monday, Transportation Committee Co-chairman Rep. William Straus acknowledged the bill’s prospects are riding on support from a central core of Democrats.

“Will the center hold, so to speak? I don’t know. I don’t know,” Straus said.

"The progressive vote is split," said one representative, who asked not to be named but has been involved in talks among progressive Democrats. "Some are going along with the speaker and trying to figure out how to rationalize it."

Outside the State House, in the midday sun Monday, the scene was a multi-ring circus with a line of seven transit activists holding their ground in the crosswalk and counter-protesters expressing concerns about adding potential toll hikes and gas tax increases on drivers.

After a Patrick administration board doubled fares for the door-to-door para-transit service The Ride last year, the elderly and disabled community objected to the prospect of fares going up again.

“They already jacked the rates up so seniors and students and all can’t afford it,” said Geneva Harris, who said she rides the bus, is on a fixed-income and sometimes chooses between food and medicine because of the cost. “Now they’re still scheming to raise the rates even more.”

Legislative leaders say their $500 million plan will spare the MBTA from its $118 million deficit, better finance regional transit authorities and increase the state’s contribution for local roads by $100 million. Critics of the plan, like the governor, say it locks in “chronic underfunding” of the transportation system.

After last week threatening to veto the legislative proposal, Patrick met Monday morning with 18 to 20 House lawmakers in his office, including many who are sympathetic to his position, to remind them he is still willing to negotiate with House Speaker Robert DeLeo on a middle path on taxes.

Patrick also dialed over 100 lawmakers over the weekend to press his case in phone calls described to the News Service by a person familiar with the calls as “temperature taking” conversations.

According to one official, the governor and his team were reminding lawmakers that the legislative leadership’s plan would be insufficient to fund all transportation and infrastructure projects programmed for their local districts. Though lawmakers can earmark capital funding for local projects, the administration ultimately controls when and where the money gets spent.

Straus told his colleagues at the outset of the debate that he did not want to “play some sort of roulette game or game of chance with the people we represent.”

“If the governor is successful in his approach today, we have a non-result. That is a choice. I recognize that. It is a choice to do nothing,” Straus said, referencing Patrick’s lobbying effort for lawmakers to vote against the proposal.

“We are here. We are debating a bill. I don’t know where it was written in the state Constitution that a governor could only compromise after he had encouraged enough lawmakers to kill the bill. It’s disappointing,” he continued.

Leaving the building on his way to lunch Monday, Patrick said there is a third option.

“To set this up as a choice between the Ways and Means bill and my original proposal is a false choice. I have been and I remain interested in a compromise and I think we can work together to get one, one where everybody wins, most importantly the people we serve,” Patrick told the News Service.

Dempsey paid a rare visit to the State House press gallery late Friday afternoon to say that House leaders do not intend to budge from the $500 million total in new taxes, and to warn potential opponents in the Legislature that the Democratic leaders intend to move on to other business should the plan fail.

Dempsey described the prospects of winning support in the House for a tax hike of more than $500 million as "very, very challenging" and said that it "does not appear at all likely." He also called it “highly unlikely” that negotiations on tax package would resume if the House or Senate rejects the proposal or if it lacks sufficient support to override a veto.

Patrick suggested to the News Service on Monday that negotiations between his office and House leaders never even began.

“You say resume negotiations. I would like to start negotiations. I have tried time after time after time to get House leadership to engage on what they needed and how we find a place in between where I started and today’s bill,” Patrick said.

DeLeo is staring down opposition within the Democratic ranks toward the plan.

As the House eased into debate on the bill, a member of DeLeo’s leadership team predicted support to pass the package of tax hikes, but maybe not enough votes at this time to sustain a promised veto.

“I think we have the votes to pass it, and by the time we’re through we’ll have enough to override. Maybe not today, but I think we’ll get there,” said the House member.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones on Friday told the News Service he would urge the Republican caucus to join with liberal and anti-tax Democrats to sustain a veto.

Some activists are already looking ahead to Senate debate on the bill. Clergy members aligned with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization plan to gather Tuesday outside Senate President Therese Murray’s office to urge a “no” vote on the plan she sponsored with Speaker DeLeo.

“We reject this proposal - it amounts to a foul ball when our State deserves nothing less than a home run,” GBIO Presdent Rev. Burns Stanfield said in a statement.


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