Wednesday, April 29, 2009

House Budget part 2: The Governor wins by losing

Second in a series of thoughts on this week’s budget battle.

When the Massachusetts House ignored my advice and passed a sales-tax increase Monday night--bumping the rate from 5% to 6.25%--they did so over Governor Patrick’s threat of a veto. While Governor Patrick lost the vote—-the house approved the proposal by a bare veto-proof margin—-he is likely to have won the public relations battle. In the end, that might be more important than the vote on the tax increase itself.

Despite his threat, the governor is not going to veto this plan. If he were truly committed to vetoing the sales tax hike, he would have waited until after it passed to make that known. The Telegram & Gazette makes that clear:
There were just over 81 votes in support after a caucus Monday morning.

It was only after the governor said he may veto the tax hike if the House failed to adopt numerous controversial reforms that House leaders interrupted their session and spent the next 10 hours converting enough Democrats to line up with the House speaker in a show of strength against the governor’s threat.

When it was clear Mr. DeLeo had more than the 107 votes for the tax hike, House leaders proceeded with the vote. But there were many holdouts. In the end 14 Central Massachusetts House members voted for the sales tax and 11 voted against it. There were just over 81 votes in support after a caucus Monday morning.
The governor had to know that the House was nowhere close to having the votes to override his veto early in the day. Had he kept his mouth shut, he could have vetoed (or issued his threat) after the measure had passed.

He also had to know that he would come out of this fight smelling like a rose. Patrick can claim that he tried to stand up for the people of the Commonwealth in opposing a broad-based tax increase and that the only reason the increase went through was because Legislature dislikes him so personally that it was unwilling to put personal politics aside in an effort to stick it to him.

An example of a rep who may have at least partly changed his vote due to frustration with the governor’s politics is Worcester’s Vincent Pedone, who we have quoted before:
Rep. Vincent A. Pedone, D-Worcester, who along with Rep. John J. Binienda, D-Worcester, panned the sales tax idea last week, came around to join the speaker’s tax hike proposal Monday night. He said the governor’s “surprise letter” on Monday created “a much different dynamic” on the vote….

He said House members also took the governor’s action as a move against them for political gain. He argued the House has acted on four of five reform packages, even though the governor claims they do not go far enough.

“Sending the letter is not leadership,” Mr. Pedone said, also criticizing a video of the governor on his Web page urging supporters to contact legislators and demand more reforms. “It’s pure pandering to the public,” Mr. Pedone said.
So Rep. Pedone and potentially 25 other members changed there vote from no to yes because the governor publicly threatened to ratify their no vote and veto the bill? It appears that some members may be so petty that they would change their vote because a governor they do not like publicly supported their position. That’s just backwards.

(And sending the letter to the members of the legislature—-and the media-—as well as circulating a video message urging citizens to call their reps to lobby for the governor’s position is both leadership and pandering. There are a lot of us who wish the governor had been doing more of this sort of leading...he seems too often to be content to roll out policy ideas and hope that people instinctively embrace them, instead of advocating and campaigning for them.)

Of course, as I said above the sales tax hike will likely become law one way or the other. When the house and senate versions of the bill go to conference, you’re likely to see a final bill that includes the senate’s stronger reform measures merged with the house sales tax plan. And the governor will sit behind the big desk as he signs the measure, and take credit for holding the legislature’s feet to the fire on the issue of reform.

Or the governor may go all the way and strike the sales tax hike from the final bill, fully knowing that his veto will be overridden, and burnishing his improbable reputation as someone who is trying to put the breaks on the Legislature’s taxes.

Next: When vote trading might be a good thing

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