State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Black Smoke
Recap and analysis of the week in state government.
White smoke was rising from the Sistine Chapel as Speaker Bob DeLeo stood outside his office prepared to take questions about the formation of his new gun control task force.
DeLeo had spent much of his morning meeting with deputies Rep. William Straus and Rep. Brian Dempsey to discuss the still elusive "magic number" for new tax and/or fee revenue that could satisfy the needs of the state's seemingly insatiable transportation system without breaking the banks of the residents who use it.
But for a moment, the Speaker's interest was piqued by what was going on in Rome where 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church had just selected a new pope. The Boston press corps had spent weeks salivating at the possibility that the city's own Cardinal Sean O'Malley might be the next pontiff. DeLeo's money was riding elsewhere.
"I picked the gentleman, the cardinal from Spain," he said. Office pool? "Not in my office, let me put it that way," DeLeo quickly explained. In this case, the speaker was out of luck. New Pope Francis calls Argentina home.
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As DeLeo tried to handicap the papal conclave, members of his House were busy trying to guess the over-under on new tax revenues. The Winthrop Democrat may soon ask his flock to support a sizeable tax increase, how large and from what source still to be determined.
Business groups like the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation testified before Straus's Transportation Committee that $800 million would be a good number, well shy of the governor's $1.9 billion request, but if dedicated to transportation, a reachable goal that comes close to the $1 billion Gov. Deval Patrick earmarked for transportation.
Asked whether that would be acceptable, Patrick said he was not ready to begin negotiating, at least not through the media: "You keep asking me to bargain against myself. I've put the number down that I think is the right number and I've expected all along that there's going to be a negotiation in that." Until then, the Speaker's fireplace is still burning black.
While Patrick headlined a rally Tuesday in Gardner Auditorium of hundreds of union members, seniors and community organizers in support of his tax plan for transportation and education investments, a group of about 20 members of the House Progressive Caucus, led by Medford Rep. Carl Sciortino, met with DeLeo on the third floor.
The caucus asked DeLeo to support $2 billion in new revenue beginning this year. The source, they told him, should be the income tax with the elimination of enough personal exemptions to hit the target without hurting those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Even though DeLeo has promised a smaller tax package than Patrick's, the lawmakers left with the impression that DeLeo had still not made up his mind, and was somewhat comforted to hear from legislators willing to support new taxes after receiving pushback on the idea of both an income tax or a gas tax hike.
Asked how many votes there were in the House for a $2 billion income tax hike, one member of the progressive caucus replied, "With or without the speaker's support?"
In the meantime, DeLeo said he hopes his new gun panel will be able to recommend legislative remedies to the dangerous intersection of gun violence and mental illness. He wants to hold off, he said, on public hearings on gun control bills until then, when presumably this whole tax thing will be a distant memory.
Patrick spent most of his week continuing to make his pitch for tax reform, doubling down on transportation investments with a $19 billion bond authorization for 10 years to support spending on projects like the Green Line, South Station and South Coast Rail that will long outlast his tenure - not to mention another $3.8 billion in borrowing for IT, energy, housing, military and other capital projects.
The governor's singular message, however, was partially drowned out by the resignation of his Early Education and Care Commissioner Sherri Killins.
Killins, a New Haven, CT, resident, became the latest personal distraction for the governor at a very inopportune time as he is trying to make the case that early education - not just transportation - needs more revenue. Killins abruptly resigned on Monday under duress over questions about whether her internship with the superintendent of the Ware Public Schools was cutting into her focus on her day job.
New Education Secretary Matt Malone and Patrick defended Killins up to and beyond the point of her resignation, insisting she had done a "terrific" job at the department, and that her internship hours were being fulfilled on her own time. An internal investigation by Malone, requested by the early education board, cleared her of "serious wrongdoing" but did nail her for turning in travel reimbursement requests without the proper signoffs.
Off Beacon Hill, the three Republicans vying for the nomination to run for U.S. Senate squared off in their first debate at Stonehill College. But political newcomer Gabriel Gomez seemed to do more harm to his own campaign than either Michael Sullivan or Rep. Dan Winslow could do during their hour on stage.
The day after the debate Gomez released the letter he sent to Patrick asking for the interim U.S. Senate appointment that ultimately went to the governor's former chief of staff Mo Cowan. In the letter, Gomez pledged support for President Obama's positions on immigration and gun control, even though he now says he opposes an assault weapons ban, and argued that picking him would be "the ultimate demonstration of bipartisanship."
Republican consultant Dominick Ianno wrote on Twitter that the letter release was the "worst self-inflicted #mapoli campaign wound since infamous Robinson Report," a reference to Jack E. Robinson's opposition research report on himself published at the outset of his quixotic 2000 campaign for Senate against Ted Kennedy.
Gomez still managed to beat Winslow in a North Andover straw poll Thursday. But then again it was a straw poll. Remember when Romney finished 7th in Iowa?
STORY OF THE WEEK: An $800 million tax hike is not as big as the increase sought by Gov. Patrick, but it's nothing to sneeze at either. This week it seemed to become the number lawmakers were cozying up to.