Big Three gather but provide few details on talks

Mariano seems odd man out so far on taxes, free community college

THE TOP THREE officials on Beacon Hill – now all Democrats with the departure of Republican Charlie Baker — gathered to discuss priorities and strategies for the first time on Monday but had very little to say afterwards.

Standing just outside her office, Gov. Maura Healey spoke to reporters for nearly 10 minutes along with Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, Senate President Karen Spilka, and House Speaker Ron Mariano. Healey said the officials talked about a lot of issues, but she seemed reluctant to provide any details.

Her reticence may be a reflection of the one-party dynamic on Beacon Hill right now. Baker, when he was in office, often used the press conferences following a “Big Three” meeting to continue lobbying for his point of view by making his case to the public. His statements often prompted the legislative leaders to articulate their own points of view.

Healey chose not to stake out any positions on Monday. She noted several times she’s only been in office a matter of days, implying that she needs time to get her legs under her. But her comments could also reflect a desire to work disagreements out with her Democratic colleagues behind the scenes.

On the handful of issues that came up during questioning on Monday, Mariano often seemed the odd man out. Both Healey and Spilka have talked in general terms about making community college free (Healey for people over 25, Spilka more broadly), but neither seemed eager to press the case on Monday.

Mariano said he learned at the Big Three sit-down meeting more about the proposals. “There are two separate proposals and now the devil is in the details,” he said.

Healey summed it up this way. “Different ones of us have articulated different things [about making community college free] and now the work begins with our teams now that we made it through this terrific inauguration week,” Healey said.

On cutting taxes, the Legislature and governor last year backed a $1 billion package of direct cash payments and permanent tax credits, but the package was dropped when the state tax cap was triggered and required the return of $3 billion. Spilka and Baker said the state could afford both tax relief initiatives, but the House chose not to move forward. Healey made more tax relief a centerpiece of her campaign for governor.

Mariano said on Monday he wanted to see more revenue numbers before making up his mind. “The consensus revenue hearing will be a big influence on what I decide,” he said, referring to a hearing where experts are polled on their revenue estimates for the coming year.

Healey acknowledged the revenue forecast would be a key factor in the discussions. “We’ve all articulated priorities to provide relief to residents across the state,” she said.  “At the end of the day it will come down to what we collectively see, and what the members [of the Legislature] collectively see, as the right way to go.”

Mariano, who has raised the possibility of tinkering with the voter-passed 1986 tax cap law, said that possibility still remains on the table. Healey didn’t comment on the issue.

Asked why Republican leaders in the two branches were not invited to the meeting, as they were when Baker was in office, Healey said the three Democrats wanted to meet alone, at least for this first meeting.

“We thought it was important for this, the first meeting, that it just be a meeting among the four of us,” she said. “We have known each other and worked together but in different capacities over the last many years. We thought it was appropriate for this initial meeting as we sit down and talk about the future and what we all want to accomplish together.”

Healey said she looked forward to “continuing the conversation and communication with minority leadership,” but she didn’t say specifically whether Republicans would be invited to future leadership meetings. Republicans have a very tiny presence in the Legislature.