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Patrick hints he will sign tax hike

Backs transit, ethics overhauls; proclaims victories on agenda for state

Governor Deval Patrick arrived at a press conference at the State House yesterday to announce he will sign transportation and ethics bills approved by the Legislature. Governor Deval Patrick arrived at a press conference at the State House yesterday to announce he will sign transportation and ethics bills approved by the Legislature. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)
By Matt Viser and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009
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Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that he intends to sign the Legislature’s overhauls of the state ethics laws and transportation system, claiming two more victories in his bid to remake Massachusetts government and all but acknowledging that he will in turn support a sales tax increase.

The two bills, along with a revision of state pension laws he signed this month, give Patrick much of what he has asked of lawmakers this year. In a 20-minute interview in his office yesterday, the governor was clearly happy with the progress and his ability to influence his colleagues in the Legislature.

“We have a very ambitious agenda,’’ he said. “We’re going to keep driving that agenda.’’

Yet Patrick now faces a thorny political problem as he heads into next year’s reelection campaign. He has said he would agree to lawmakers’ plan to raise the sales tax only after they agreed to significant government reforms. Now that they have done that to his liking, Patrick is all but compelled to sign a provision in next year’s state budget to increase the sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent, which will surely draw heat from his opponents and some voters.

Speaking at a late-afternoon press conference, Patrick did not say explicitly that he would sign the sales tax measure, but he strongly suggested he would do so.

“I will keep my end of the bargain,’’ he said. “They seem to be keeping theirs.’’

It was clear yesterday that Patrick’s political advisers were hoping to capitalize heavily on what they see as major legislative accomplishments and that they plan to try to use the momentum to dominate the agenda on Beacon Hill in weeks to come. Patrick was already talking yesterday about additional overhauls of education, criminal records laws, and state sentencing laws, and he may get another chance to push his plans for casino gambling.

The press conference seemed to hint at the administration’s strategy to use these bills for political advantage. It was highly coordinated, with poster-board signs that pronounced “Delivering Landmark Reform’’ and listing check marks next to what Patrick considers his major achievements in changing how state government operates. Patrick also made a point of addressing “you, the people of the Commonwealth.’’

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray were not invited to share the limelight, although the governor acknowledged them several times as he stood alone at the podium.

Several lawmakers said Patrick has no right to claim any political victory, asserting that he was merely pushing them to approve legislation that was already in motion.

“He’s going to have a press conference saying how he’s done all this wonderful work,’’ state Senator Scott Brown, a Wrentham Republican, said on the Senate floor before yesterday’s event. “It wasn’t him. It’s us.’’

Last week, the House and Senate approved legislation that would overhaul the state’s transportation system, dismantling the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and reconfiguring a confusing array of agencies that operate the state’s roads, rail, and bridges. For the past week, Patrick would not say whether he planned to sign the bill.

There were several technical details that Patrick wanted changed, and lawmakers were working on those last night. Patrick is expected to sign the legislation at an event today in Springfield.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate unanimously approved changes yesterday afternoon to state ethics laws, strengthening enforcement, levying higher penalties for campaign finance violations, and banning nearly all gifts to public officials. Patrick said he would sign the ethics law within the next several days.

“Let’s bring hope back to Massachusetts,’’ said state Representative Peter Kocot, a Northampton Democrat and a chief architect of the ethics bill.

Patrick took a major political gamble, which is now paying off, when, on the morning of April 27, he released a letter to legislators threatening to veto the sales tax increase unless they first approved changes in transportation and ethics laws that he found acceptable.

Top lawmakers, taken by surprise by Patrick’s public scolding, were incensed. DeLeo used Patrick’s threat as a rallying cry for House members to buck the governor and back his leadership instead, and several hours later 108 lawmakers, enough to sustain a veto, stood in favor of raising the sales tax. The Senate followed several weeks later with a similar vote. But Patrick kept hammering away at his themes of reform, pushing the message in e-mail messages to supporters and YouTube videos.

Through it all, the governor was able to use the bully pulpit of the corner office to tie four pieces of legislation together: the budget, and the bills on ethics, transportation, and pensions that would otherwise have been considered in isolation.

“It was a risk, but he seems to have pulled it off,’’ said former governor Michael S. Dukakis, a Democrat who gives Patrick credit for getting his agenda enacted, even though he disagrees with his transportation plans. “Whatever you think of the details, I think it was a predictably reasonable position.’’

The victories come at a critical time for Patrick, who is laying the groundwork for his 2010 reelection campaign.

Maurice Cunningham, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said that Patrick has a political edge that few governors have had: He can go back to voters and rightfully say he succeeded in pushing lawmakers to adopt his reform agenda, the central promise of his 2006 campaign.

“The circumstances presented themselves, and he has played it skillfully,’’ Cunningham said.

The shift in Patrick’s political fortunes arrives as potential challengers are emerging.

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill is considering running, either in the Democratic primary or as an independent. Many Republicans are pinning their hopes on Charles D. Baker, the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care chief executive officer. Both men said they will decide by September. Christy Mihos , the wealthy convenience store executive who ran as an independent in 2006 but garnered only 6 percent of the vote, is also ramping up to run as a Republican.