Mass. legislators looking askance at tax hike plans

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / April 9, 2009
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House and Senate leaders on Beacon Hill, in the throes of a budget crisis of historic proportions, are resisting Governor Deval Patrick's demand for new taxes and instead plan to impose deeper spending cuts, lawmakers said.

The state has yet to finish dealing with a total budget gap that could reach $3.5 billion this year. It faces the prospect of worse revenue shortfalls next year.

But when the House unveils its budget next week, it is unlikely to contain the bevy of new taxes Governor Deval Patrick is seeking, including sales taxes on alcohol and candy, and higher fees at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Instead, House budget writers will rely on cuts of massive proportions, according to State House officials who have been briefed on the deliberations. The cuts will go well beyond those included in the $28 billion budget Patrick proposed in January, sources said.

The Senate also is planning to craft a budget that does not account for any tax increases, according to Senator Steven Panagiotakos, chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

"Not many relish taking a tax vote," he said. "Over here, we've been very serious about reform before revenue. I think we need to continue along that road."

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo declined to comment yesterday, although he told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week that "the cuts that are required to balance this budget. . . will cut to the very core of government's purpose and mission." He told reporters afterward that "as of right now, I haven't sensed the support" for most of the governor's tax increase proposals.

Representative Charles A. Murphy, a Burlington Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, declined to comment on his committee's budget proposal, which goes to be printed later this week and will be officially unveiled next week. Advocates for human services and other government programs are bracing for a major blow.

"There's a growing sense of impending doom, anticipating a budget filled with pain and loss," said Representative Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat and House chairman of the Committee on Revenue.

He said there had been little discussion of any of the governor's tax-raising proposals, although lawmakers could change their minds as the economic situation deteriorates in the coming months and the fiscal year looms July 1.

"I certainly see no evidence of any consensus over any revenue package, or even that there should be one," Kaufman said.

In addition to the nearly $600 million in tax and fee increases and other revenue generators the governor included in his budget proposal, lawmakers are also skeptical of a plan to raise the state's gas tax. Patrick has proposed increasing the gas tax by 19 cents, a measure which would probably be considered separately, outside the budget, but top lawmakers have proposed delaying that debate.

The clearest signal from the Legislature: No one wants to discuss taxes right now.

"It's a talk for another day," Panagiotakos said.

Once the House approves its version of the budget, it will go to the Senate for debate. The two branches would have to reconcile their differences before sending it to the governor. The whole process will unfold over several months.

Leslie Kirwan, Patrick's secretary of administration and finance, declined to comment yesterday on the prospect that House and Senate lawmakers aren't following the tax increase plans. Kirwan has until next week to revise revenue estimates for the remainder of this fiscal year.

"This is gruesome," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "At this point, it's very much in the air what combination of tax increases, if any, there would be. They've had trouble getting consensus on the gas tax alone . . . all of that is very fluid."

While a House budget next week with heavy cuts would provoke an uproar from social-service advocates and others, the budget calendar gives lawmakers time to change their minds. And waiting could provide them with more accurate revenue estimates before they commit.

One problem with the governor's proposal, lawmakers said, is that it incrementally increases taxes in a wide variety of places.

"You're not going to get people to vote on four or five different taxes," said Representative Daniel Bosley, a Democrat from North Adams. "People can't feel like we're raising taxes on them every week. You need . . . to do this one time."

Whatever budget goes into effect on July 1 will be one of the starkest in recent memory and will continue a slide that began last fall when Massachusetts fell victim to the global recession.

The state is currently facing a gap of at least $245 million just to close the books on this year's budget, according to administration officials. And most analysts expect that number to grow - some have estimated it could reach $1 billion - if monthly revenue continues to fall short, as it did for February and March.

Matt Viser can be reached at