Governor Deval Patrick and Democratic legislative leaders slid into deeper gridlock over transportation financing Friday, with some lawmakers acknowledging that they probably could not muster the votes to override a threatened veto and House leaders taking a hard line against compromise.
A day after Patrick stirred dissension on Beacon Hill by accusing lawmakers of clinging to the financing policies that led to exploding Big Dig costs, House officials raised the ante by signaling their intention not to budge from their $500 million tax package, far shy of Patrick’s $1.9 billion proposal.
With such a chasm between the two plans and tensions rising between legislative leaders and Patrick, veteran lawmakers and senior administration officials said they were unsure whether a compromise could emerge in time to avert a spike in MBTA fares.
Escalating the showdown with Patrick, House Ways and Means chairman Brian Dempsey told reporters on Friday afternoon that it was “highly unlikely” the House would return to the transportation funding mechanism if the leadership plan meets defeat.
Under that scenario, he said, T riders would probably be facing increased fares and reduced services. The Haverhill Democrat said leadership had also found insufficient support for ratcheting up the $500 million bottom line, which Patrick has called inadequate. “Getting to a higher number does not appear at all likely,” he said.
In talking points circulated to members on Friday, both Dempsey and Senate Ways and Means chairman Stephen Brewer said their financing package would provide sufficient funds to obviate fare boosts and to pay for infrastructure upkeep, as well as for existing long-term capital plans.
In response, Patrick spokeswoman Jesse Mermell wrote in an e-mail: “The Governor respects the Legislature’s process, but has made clear that he cannot and will not support a bill that doesn’t meet the Commonwealth’s basic transportation and education needs, let alone make critical investments the future. He remains open to working with the Legislature to find a long-term solution.”
While Patrick’s plan would make significant investments in education and transportation, the leadership bill is confined to a narrowed list of transportation projects, a choice the governor dismissed Thursday as a “pretend fix.” Patrick’s version leans on higher income taxes, reserve funds, and revenue anticipation notes. The legislators would fund their smaller outlay with higher taxes on gas, tobacco, and businesses.
The conflict over transportation financing, which has bedeviled the state for generations, has imbued the generally cordial relations between Patrick and his fellow Democratic leaders with a hostility not seen since the 2010 debate over how to expand the state’s gambling industry. Senate President Therese Murray, who did not react to Patrick’s Thursday rebuke as publicly as House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, is also angry with the governor, according to senators.
On Thursday, Patrick blamed lawmakers for adhering to the principles that sent the Big Dig’s cost soaring, while DeLeo argued that legislators were “trying to protect the middle class” from Patrick’s tax-hiking wont.
DeLeo was working Friday to line up votes to pass the leadership version of the bill next week and Murray is taking her members’ temperature to do the same, with doubts in both chambers over whether the numbers exist to override. Republicans leery of the tax increases and Democrats who believe the package is insufficiently ambitious could band together in an unlikely coalition to thwart the leadership, members said.
Dempsey said he was optimistic that leaders could secure the requisite votes.
The nose count was less clear in the Senate, where Patrick had scored some support by including long-awaited transportation projects in his plan. Already, the debate has confounded one member’s plans, as Senator Ben Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, rescheduled his honeymoon flight to be on hand for the Senate vote, scheduled for Thursday.
“Not only do I not think that we have the votes to override, I don’t know whether we have the votes to pass it,” said one Democrat. “I don’t know what the House is going to do, but I think the debate on our side is far from a foregone conclusion.”
In each chamber, there are concerns about what the other can accomplish, straining the House-Senate alliance, which is unusual at this juncture in the legislative process.
That tension, though, does not approach that between the executive and legislative branches, which has escalated to a level not seen since the very public 2010 blow-up between DeLeo and Patrick over gambling. That dispute climaxed with DeLeo, in a dramatic speech at the foot of the Capitol’s Grand Staircase, challenging Patrick to agree to licensing racetrack slot machines or make the state’s residents “suffer.”
After tempers cooled and the casino bill was signed — closer to Patrick’s vision than DeLeo’s — a generally congenial working relationship rebooted, allowing Democrat-run Beacon Hill to pass laws on health care cost control, pension policies, and criminal sentencing.
Now, with fare hikes looming and the state facing an aging transportation infrastructure, Democratic leaders are focusing their fire on Patrick.
“The governor really misread this politically,” said House majority leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat.
“He doesn’t understand the fact that we need to get 81 votes to support a plan and we know there is not support for a tax increase of that magnitude, and I think he has misjudged the level of support in the building for his plan,” Mariano said.
Lawmakers complain that Patrick stirred up activists to put them in an awkward position, wiring his vaunted grass-roots network to apply pressure and pitting traditional allies against one another.
Patrick aides respond that the pressure came about because legislators said they were hearing only antitax arguments and needed political cover from advocates. They point out that Patrick, by design, stumped publicly in districts represented by both Democratic and Republican leaders.
Legislative officials, Patrick aides say, had counseled the administration to peddle his tax package the way then-speaker Thomas M. Finneran did in 2002, touring the state to cobble support for a major tax hike. The administration posted an online map, broken into House and Senate districts, detailing how localities would benefit from transportation projects.
“Our original goal was that this not be dead on arrival,” said one administration official.
The conflict over transportation comes as Patrick heads into the back stretch of his governorship, with open questions about what happens to the considerable political operation he has built.
Patrick, who has said he will not run for a third term, on Thursday said he will provide electoral assistance to lawmakers who backed him on transportation, raising the specter of a lame-duck governor with an uncertain political future involving himself in Massachusetts House-level races at a time when some expect him to be making stops in Iowa and New Hampshire.