House seeks SJC ruling on Senate tax votes

DeLeo order says Senate lacked legal authority

 

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE on Friday asked the state’s highest court to weigh in on whether the Senate abided by the constitution in proposing to freeze the income tax rate and add a tobacco tax through its version of the state budget.

In a sparsely attended Friday morning session held only hours after the Senate approved its budget, the House adopted a Speaker Robert DeLeo order to seek an opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court.

“Grave doubt exists as to the constitutionality” of sections of the Senate budget, the House orders says.

DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg disagree about whether the House’s budget proposal to increase a conservation land tax credit gave the Senate the authority to change tax laws in its budget.

The Senate budget would remove laws aimed at ratcheting down the income tax rate toward 5 percent if economic benchmarks are met. In addition to freezing the income tax at 5.15 percent, the budget would increase the personal exemption for income taxes and boost the state’s earned income tax credit. A provision added by the Senate Thursday night would add another tax onto flavored cigars and smoking tobacco.

“Money bills” – which involve the taking of property, usually in the form of taxes, are required to originate in the House and DeLeo has maintained the House budget was not a money bill. Rosenberg disagreed, citing the conservation land tax credit provision, and the Senate took advantage of the opportunity to raise taxes.

“Heard in the Senate chamber – ‘Wow Speaker DeLeo is really going to love the cigar tax,'” Sen. Jamie Eldridge Tweeted Thursday night as the Senate wrapped up its budget.

“The budget passed unanimously by the House in April contained no new taxes or any other provisions that would make it a so-called ‘money bill’- thereby triggering the Senate’s ability to add tax increases,” DeLeo said in a statement Friday. “The Senate clearly disagrees with this and has included provisions in its budget that would, among other increases, effectively raise Massachusetts’ income tax rate.”

>>> For a copy of the House order, click here: http://www.statehousenews.com/content/docs/2015/05-22HouseQueryToSJC.pdf <<<

Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, told the News Service she was “a little bit surprised” to see the House had taken the action, and said the earned income tax credit helps with “lifting people out of poverty” and freezing the income tax would alleviate pressure on the budget.

Gov. Charlie Baker deflected when asked if he would veto the tax provisions, saying, “Remember, there’s a conference committee that we have to go through and a whole bunch of other things here.”

The governor said he hopes the court would “rule pretty quickly on this,” and said there is value to disagreement between the branches.

“I think there’s value in a sort of legitimate back and forth between and among the players. And we certainly have that at this point in time on a number of issues,” Baker said at a news conference Friday afternoon. “But I would also say that it’s a democracy with a small d. That kind of comes with the job description, I think, for all of us.”

A ruling of the court, which would come after a call for briefs from interested parties, would not necessarily hold up the normal process of appointing a six-member conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate budget.

“We’re asking for the SJC to work on it immediately so that we can continue with the budget process,” House Second Assistant Majority Leader Paul Donato told the News Service. “We will probably continue to file with a conference committee and continue the budget process as it stands, waiting for the SJC to render an opinion.”

All but two of the justices on the seven-member Supreme Judicial Court were nominated by former Gov. Deval Patrick who had his own battles with lawmakers in a bid to raise the income tax two years ago.

Known as a green ribbon for the Kelly green binding used, an advisory opinion from the SJC was last sought by the House in 1998, according to House Clerk Steven James.

Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, filed the flavored tobacco tax amendment, and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat and co-chairman of the Committee on Revenue, sponsored the amendment freezing the income tax.

Joining Republicans in opposition to the Rodrigues amendment were Democrat Sens. Eileen Donoghue, Michael Moore, Jennifer Flanagan, Anne Gobi and James Timilty. Except for Timilty, those same Democrats opposed the flavored tobacco tax and were joined by Democrat Sens. Thomas Kennedy, Michael Rush and Rodrigues in voting against the Lewis amendment.

Rodrigues defended the constitutionality of his amendment after it passed, saying, “I have no clue why they could take legal action. In my opinion the House chose to increase the conservation land tax credit and we chose to increase the earned income tax credit.”

House Counsel James Kennedy and DeLeo’s chief of staff, James Eisenberg, both stood on the rostrum during Friday’s House session, the morning after the 12:15 a.m. 40-0 passage of the Senate budget.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Some schoolchildren from the town of Dartmouth were witnesses to the parliamentary maneuver Friday that would rope the state’s highest court into a dispute between the two branches. Rep. Christopher Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat, explained the role of lawmaking for young students in the House chamber during Friday’s session when DeLeo’s order was adopted.

Gintautas Dumcius contributed reporting.