Hours after being criticized by Senate leader, Governor Deval Patrick signals agreement possible

Governor Deval Patrick said today he is open to the state Senate’s transportation financing plan, comments that could signal the beginning of the end of a tense dispute between the governor and legislative leaders over taxes and transit funding.

The governor said the $805 million Senate bill could be a middle ground between his $1 billion tax increase for transportation and the $500 million tax hike that the House passed earlier this week.

Patrick has vowed to veto the House bill, calling it insufficient, but issued no such threat toward the Senate legislation.

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“Well, it’s definitely moving in the right direction,” Patrick told reporters in a State House hallway. “It’s a very, very hopeful movement in the right direction.”

The Senate’s transportation bill includes the same tax increases on gasoline and tobacco approved by the House Monday, but would boost transportation spending by redirecting money from other parts of the state budget and imposing a new fee on utility companies.

The governor praised Senate President Therese Murray for adding more money for transportation than the House.

“There are a lot of people in the Legislature – and, I think, including the Senate president—who do not want to kick the can down the road, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen the movement on the Senate side,” Patrick said.

Patrick’s warm comments toward Murray came hours after she said she had not spoken to the governor in three weeks and was upset about the rhetoric he used to condemn a $500 million tax hike tentatively agreed upon by House and Senate leaders earlier this week.

Patrick had called the Legislature’s initial framework “a return to an old way of doing business,” and “the same short-term fiscal shell game that got us the Big Dig and the mess that followed.”

“You have to be careful when you speak, and the rhetoric and the words that you use, if you want to move things ahead,” Murray told reporters after speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Asked if the governor was too harsh, she said, “I think people felt that.”

Her comments made clear how frigid the climate is now between the governor and legislative leaders, all of whom are Democrats.

In her speech to the chamber, Murray did not dwell on the standoff between Patrick and the Legislature over taxes and transportation. Instead, she said Massachusetts should consider raising its $8-an-hour minimum wage to help close a growing gap between incomes and the cost of living.

The setting for her pitch was noteworthy because business groups have traditionally resisted efforts to raise the minimum wage, arguing higher wages discourage employers from hiring.

Murray said she did not have a new minimum wage in mind, but wants to start a conversation about it, because too many families are struggling to make ends meet at Massachusetts’ current rate.

She noted that, last week, Maine passed a law that will raise that state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016 and index future minimum wage increase. New York, also passed a law recently that will raise that state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour over the next three years. In Massachusetts, the rate has not been increased since 2008.

“By identifying what a living wage is in Massachusetts, we can have a positive impact on families, and especially single parents who are trying to improve the lives of their children,” Murray said. “We will support our growing economy, give our residents more to spend and this change will serve as a big step forward in helping our residents lead successful and self-sustaining lives in the Commonwealth.”

Business leaders gave the idea a lukewarm reception. Paul Guzzi, president of the chamber, said he believes there is “an important conversation” to have about increasing the minimum wage, but only as part of larger effort that would also make the state more competitive for businesses by lowering their costs.

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