DeLeo calls tax plan ‘fantasy land’

Raises concerns about voter backlash


HOUSE SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO called the governor’s request for $1.9 billion in new tax revenue “fantasy land” during a private political caucus with Democrats on Wednesday, expressing concern about voter backlash in next year’s election cycle, according to multiple sources who attended the meeting.

DeLeo addressed a sizeable number of House Democrats who gathered at the Omni Parker House in downtown Boston on Wednesday morning for a meeting of the Committee for a Democratic House political action committee.

Though DeLeo shed little new light on his thinking about the size of a new revenue package for transportation he is developing or the source from which he will draw it, several lawmakers said the speaker described himself as “taken aback” by the scope of the governor’s plan first laid out in the State of the Commonwealth speech in January and built upon in the ensuing weeks.

DeLeo also expressed concerns about reports from the three major bond rating agencies, outlined by the News Service on Tuesday, that have expressed worry about Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget due an alleged overreliance on income tax revenue, additional withdrawals from the state’s rainy day fund and borrowing $400 million in anticipation of future revenues.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones on Wednesday called on DeLeo to hold a public hearing on his transportation financing plan whenever it is released, concerned that Democratic leadership may fast track the bill and skirt the full public vetting process.

“The transportation plan put forth by the Patrick Administration has been available to the public and the members to review, understand, and ask questions about for a considerable amount of time. I would hope that with the potential for massive tax increases looming, the Speaker would put his plan through a similar public test,” Jones said in a statement.

Though DeLeo has previously talked about his desire for a smaller revenue package than Patrick’s, the tone of his comments suggested to some in the room a growing frustration with Patrick’s challenging of the Legislature to show “political courage.”

“I don’t want to hear that we don’t vote for taxes, because we do,” DeLeo reportedly told the caucus, according to one lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

In public and during the gathering, DeLeo has expressed his respect for the governor and Patrick’s willingness to identify his priorities in transportation and education. He shares those priorities, DeLeo told the members, and the House is moving toward what is expected to be a sizeable revenue proposal to shore up transportation finances.

However, after nearly a year of building public recognition of the need to invest in an aging state infrastructure and transportation system, DeLeo told the members he feels that Patrick “changed the atmosphere” with the size of his tax reform proposal, according to several lawmakers who attended.

In DeLeo’s estimation, the scope of the tax package – including eliminating popular tax exemptions, taxing candy and soda, and raising the gas tax and cigarette tax – took the focus off transportation needs and left voters with a sense that Beacon Hill is simply asking for more money as it has in the past.

“There’s a sense now of, ‘Here we go again,’” one House member told the News Service.

DeLeo spoke to the News Service after the meeting, saying he convened the members to discuss next year’s election and make members aware of the resources available to them and the need to be raising money. The PAC is planning its first fundraiser of the year in May.

“You can’t start too early, so I just wanted to make sure everyone realizes that there’s more to running than just on election years. You have to be out there,” DeLeo told the News Service.

The speaker said the meeting gave him a good opportunity to hear from a number of members about where they stand on tax increases, and he heard a range of opinions from those who support the governor’s plan and those who feel they can’t support new taxes in their district.

“I honestly don’t know where we are on this,” DeLeo said. “At the end of the day I think we’re going to have a resolution that’s going to address some of the issues before us and at the same time be fiscally prudent,” DeLeo said.

With the House Ways and Means Committee preparing to release its own fiscal 2014 budget proposal on April 10, DeLeo said he would still like to take up a transportation financing bill before the budget debate, but could not promise the House plan would come together in time.

After the meeting, many representatives were reluctant to talk about the subjects discussed inside.

Asked what he learned at the meeting, Rep. Theodore Speliotis (D-Danvers) quipped, “Not enough,” on his way out of the hotel.

Rep. Michael Moran, a Boston Democrat and floor leader for DeLeo, said, “We learned that people don’t like taxes.” Though Moran acknowledged there are some in the House who support Patrick’s plan, he said “the lower the tax, the more people like it.”

Pollster Louis DiNatale ran through his interpretation of the polls on transportation financing and higher taxes for members, including an analysis of how the questions were asked and what it could mean about the level of support.

Moran, who said the speaker gave no indication that a decision on the size of the House revenue package or the source of new funding has been made, emphasized that members are trying to find their way to support new revenue while also being “fiscally prudent.”

“In years past, we’ve been the fiscal watchdogs of the budget, voting for taxes when we have to and always making sure they’re connected to job growth,” Moran said.

Rep. Kevin Honan, a Boston Democrat, described the discussion amongst the members as “very thorough.” “The House plan is still evolving. It’s not definitive yet,” he told the News Service.

PAC political consultant Matt O’Neil and Richard Jarvis, the widower of the late Rep. Joyce Spiliotis, also updated House Democrats on the state of the special election contest in Peabody that will be decided next Tuesday.

Meet the Author

Matt Murphy

State House News Service
Democrat Beverley Griffin Dunne is running against conservative Republican Leah Cole, a 24-year-old nurse, and independent City Councilor Dave Gravel. Both Cole and Gravel have significantly outraised and spent Dunne in the campaign by enough of a margin to make Democrats nervous. Jarvis has helped organize Dunne’s campaign.

“It was your normal send lawyers, guns and money request,” said one lawmaker.