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House OK's hike in Mass. sales tax

Tally enough to override Patrick's threatened veto

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / April 28, 2009
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House lawmakers approved a sales tax hike last night by a veto-proof margin, capping a dramatic showdown with Governor Deval Patrick after he threatened to veto the broad-based tax increase.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo won his first political victory with the 108-to-51 vote, persuading lawmakers to sign onto his plan to increase the sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent. The vote also heightens the tension among top Beacon Hill Democrats, who have had sharp disagreements over how to solve the state's budget crisis.

"We've got 160 members . . . making their own adult decisions," Representative Charles A. Murphy, the House chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told reporters after the vote. The governor, he added, "can do whatever he does. That's great."

Patrick opposes the plan and sent an ultimatum to all 200 members of the Legislature yesterday afternoon, promising to veto the increase unless lawmakers first enact transportation, ethics, and pension law changes he has sought.

The governor sent his threat in a letter as the House was preparing to debate DeLeo's plan, which could raise $900 million in new revenue to help avoid steep budget cuts.

Patrick said he did not believe that the public will support the House plan without bigger changes on Beacon Hill, including curbing pension abuses and tightening ethics codes.

"I don't believe that we can go to the pub lic and ask for any broad-based tax increase unless we get meaningful outcomes on the reform measures that are pending," Patrick told reporters yesterday afternoon.

It was a rare moment of open discord between party allies. It forced DeLeo and his leadership team to retreat behind closed doors through much of the day to muster 107 votes, the two-thirds required for an override.

Senate leaders, who also would need to sign onto the House's tax increase, were conspicuously silent on the subject. Senate President Therese Murray declined to comment. Her spokesman repeated Murray's previous comments that she has not ruled out any tax increase, except for a hike in the income tax.

Several lawmakers accused Patrick of posturing in advance of a 2010 reelection bid. "I think this is him kicking off his campaign," Representative David Flynn, a Bridgewater Democrat, said in an interview. "It's usually the thing to do, run against the Legislature."

Patrick's veto warning was part of an eventful day full of political intrigue, behind-the-scenes negotiations, and Democratic infighting. The chants of protax advocates thundered through the State House corridors, even as lobbyists, hoping to preserve funding for various causes, stood in the hallways hoping to catch a few minutes with lawmakers.

At one point Patrick tried to avoid reporters and slip into his office by an alternate, fourth-floor office, only to be tracked down.

The debate was the first major political test for DeLeo, who took over from Salvatore F. DiMasi in January. DeLeo's promise to hold a free and open debate on the House floor was jettisoned as, in private meetings, he sought to persuade Democratic lawmakers to buck the governor. Late in the afternoon, DeLeo still had not found enough votes, and the House recessed for several hours, according to Democratic House members who did not wish to be identified.

Debate on the issue began around 8 p.m. and lasted for about three hours.

DeLeo also did not emerge to make any public statements, even after the vote last night, temporarily ceding the public debate and the strategic advantage to Patrick.

"I've always been about reform before revenue," Patrick told reporters yesterday. "But it's more than that. It's change before revenue, and I want that change. And so, by the way, do the people of the Commonwealth."

DeLeo wants to dedicate about $275 million of the new revenues that would be raised by the sales tax increase to transportation. Under the speaker's plan, that would avoid the need for a gas tax increase of 19 cents per gallon proposed by Patrick. DeLeo's plan would result in just half the revenue, however, dismaying transportation advocates, who say it is not enough to solve chronic transportation funding problems.

In recent days, Patrick has grown increasingly impatient with the Legislature, chiding lawmakers for not adopting his transportation changes, separate pension and ethics changes, and for ignoring his proposal to tax candy and alcohol.

With his new tactics, Patrick predicted yesterday that "we will get to a good result."

The governor surprised many lawmakers by e-mailing them his letter at 12:31 p.m., just before they went to the House floor to debate the $27.4 billion budget.

The letter was later sent to his political supporters through his campaign committee.

"I ask that you forward this e-mail to all of your friends, family, and colleagues, so that they too can be informed of this very important issue facing our state," Patrick wrote in the e-mail.

Two of Patrick's possible gubernatorial rivals oppose the sales tax increase.

"While I recognize the need for revenue, raising taxes of any kind during a recession is a bad idea," Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who has not ruled out challenging Patrick, said in a statement.

Christy Mihos, who has declared he will run as a Republican, also opposes increasing the sales tax.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.