Thursday, April 30, 2009

House budget part 3: When vote trading may be the right thing

Third 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%--Speaker Robert DeLeo was forced to scramble to put together 107 votes in an effort to build a majority large enough to override Governor Patrick’s threatened veto. Rep. Dennis Rosa of Leominster told the Telegram & Gazette the House leadership was working hard to get votes changed:
Freshman Rep. Dennis A. Rosa, D-Leominster, said he was asked to back the speaker’s tax plan repeatedly throughout the day, but held his ground to vote against it.

“My arm got twisted two or three times yesterday, but politely twisted,” he said. “It was fine with me. They made me a sales pitch and I made my case that I had to represent my district and stand up for my people,” Mr. Rosa said.

“Leadership wasn’t happy with it but I think they understand my decision.”
In my two earlier posts I was critical of Worcester Rep. Vincent Pedone for changing his vote for what appear to be less-than courageous reasons. But would it be different if a representative changed his vote in return for a project or funding that was vital to his community?

For instance, take the situation that may have faced Rep. Harold Naughton of Clinton. (And I want to make it clear here that this is a completely hypothetical situation. Not only do I not know if Naughton changed his vote from No to Yes, I don’t have any idea why he would have made a change if he did. I’m presenting this just for the sake of argument.) When the budget was first released a couple of weeks ago, Clinton was looking at taking a significant hit in local aid. Not only was the town facing the 32% cut in local aid that all cities and town are facing, but Clinton also faced the loss of an additional $500,000 in aid, as explained by the Times and Courier:
Half that cut comes via the elimination of an annual state payment of $500,000 to operate the wastewater treatment plant on High Street, Town Administrator Michael Ward said Tuesday. State Rep. Harold Naughton Jr., D-Clinton, vowed to fight the cut.

“I feel that’s not just a statutory obligation, but a moral obligation of the commonwealth,” Naughton said. “This will be my priority. Every resource that I have [will be brought] to the fight.”

The payment enables the town to pay its $500,000 annual bill to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which operates the sewer plant and the Wachusett Reservoir. Naughton said the payment is intended as compensation for the state taking Clinton land to build the reservoir in the 1890s and 1900s....
The article goes on to suggest that Naughton had not yet committed to raising the sales tax:
“I think we’ll see some proposals for taxes,” Naughton said. “I think you’ll see debate on a raise in the sales tax, I think you’ll see us return to debate on the statewide meals and hotel tax...I still need to listen to some debate and be convinced one way or the other.”
So in our scenario, we know that there is something that Naughton is willing to “use every resource” to fight for, and that he had not publicly committed to voting for a sales tax. Fast forward to Monday. In the Democratic caucus, Naughton does not commit to being one of the 81 yes votes Speaker DeLeo needs to pass the bill. Suddenly, the Governor’s letter hits everyone’s e-mail box and DeLeo starts to scramble to pick up an additional 26 votes to ensure a veto-proof majority.

If DeLeo heads down to Naughton’s office or pulls him aside on the floor of the house and asks “what will it take to get you to join us on the sales tax?” the answer is… “Put the $500,000 for the MWRA treatment plant back into the budget and I’ll vote with you.”

Again, I’ve made the DeLeo-Naughton scenario up in my head, so it may not have happened that way. But if it did, would that be reason enough to change a vote? Is raising the sales tax worth the additional $500,000 in local aid for Clinton?

I don’t know. I expect that this is one of the toughest parts of being a state rep or senator: how do you balance what you think is best for the state against what you think is best for your district? I hoped that Naughton would vote against the sales tax, but perhaps he had reasons other than tax philosophy to do so.

Or maybe he didn’t. Either way, it will be interesting to see if Clinton ends up with the $500,000 after all, and how much more Naughton will have to fight to get it.

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