House threatens legal action if Senate votes taxes

Budget debate could lead to constitutional confrontation

THE HOUSE AND SENATE may be headed for a bruising constitutional confrontation if the Senate next week approves budget amendments that raise or lower taxes.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have exchanged differing views through the media on whether the Senate can include tax measures in its budget, with Rosenberg insisting his branch can and DeLeo insisting just as strongly that it can’t. Now, with the Senate budget debate set to begin next week, the two branches are ratcheting up the rhetoric.

Senate officials say they are on firm ground, pointing to the content of a Legislative Drafting Manual on the Legislature’s website which is signed by both the House and Senate legal counsels. But a senior House official late Friday said the manual is not a legal authority and warned that any Senate amendment raising taxes would be unconstitutional.

“The House takes seriously the permission and restrictions of the Constitution of the Commonwealth. Should the Senate unconstitutionally exercise the exclusive constitutional privilege of the House, the House of Representatives will assess its legal options at that time,” the senior House official said in a statement.

The budget being taken up by the Senate next week includes no tax measures, but several senators have filed amendments that would expand the earned income tax credit, eliminate the film tax credit, and change the sales and income taxes. If one or more of the measures is approved, a legislative standoff is possible.

The senior House official, who spoke only on the condition he not be identified, would not go beyond his statement, but sources in both branches said a legal dispute between the House and Senate could be resolved by asking for a legal opinion from the attorney general or the Supreme Judicial Court, which could lead to delays in passage of the budget.

The dispute between the two branches centers on the definition of a money bill. Money bills are referenced in the state constitution, which says they must originate in the House. The Legislative Drafting Manual defines a money bill as “a bill that transfers money or property from the people to the Commonwealth, i.e. a bill that imposes a tax. These bills must be taken up by the House first.”

According to the Legislative Drafting Manual, a state budget does not automatically qualify as a money bill because it is primarily concerned with allocating state tax dollars to various programs and initiatives. To qualify as a money bill, a budget would have to include a provision that either lowers or raises state revenues, according to the drafting manual.

Senate officials believe an amendment to the House budget that raises the cap on a tax credit given to people who donate land to the state transformed the budget into a money bill because the measure would have the effect of lowering state tax revenues. The amendment, filed by Rep. Brian Mannal of Barnstable, raised the tax credit cap from $2 million to $5 million.

The statement from the senior House official also quoted the Legislative Drafting Manual, noting that money bills are “bills that transfer money or property from the people to the state.” The statement said the House budget does not transfer money or property to the state. “In fact, the provision cited by the Senate as rendering the budget a money bill actually increases a cap on an existing tax credit, which would do the opposite in that it would transfer money from the state to the people,” the senior House official said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The House official’s statement said any Senate amendment that would raise taxes “would be an unconstitutional attempt by the Senate to usurp the exclusive constitutional privilege of the House of Representatives to originate money bills.”

The House-Senate dispute over taxes comes as the two branches are also bickering over rules governing how bills are reported out of committees. The Senate is challenging the current approach, which it says gives too much power to the House to bottle up in committee bills sponsored by senators.

Seth Gitell, a spokesman for DeLeo, declined comment on the controversy. Efforts to reach Rosenberg were unsuccessful.