Mariano open to tinkering, scrapping, or postponing tax cap law

Speaker seems peeved at Baker’s eagerness to empty coffers

HOUSE SPEAKER Ron Mariano, clearly frustrated with Gov. Charlie Baker, suggested on Friday that the Legislature could modify, scrap, or delay the 1986 tax cap law that is expected to return roughly $3 billion to Massachusetts taxpayers.

“It’s an option,” Mariano said. “Sure it’s an option, everything’s on the table. We could undo the law. We could change it. We could postpone it.”

Mariano indicated he was very skeptical of the governor’s assurance that the state can afford both the $3 billion tax cap giveback plus a $1 billion relief package split down the middle between permanent tax cuts and one-time payments of $250 to certain taxpayers.

“Realistically, that’s a big hurdle,” Mariano said of trying to do both tax relief measures.

Several budget analysts, including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, have suggested the state could afford both tax break initiatives.

Baker, a Republican, has a reputation for fiscal conservatism, but Mariano suggested the governor is eager to spend every spare dollar the state has despite the uncertain future.

Mariano said the tax cap giveback raises concerns about what’s going to happen with future budgets. “I know that’s something that’s far more important to us than it is to the folks in the executive branch right now, but we do have to be mindful that we’re one of the highest inflation states on the East Coast. We do have to protect our future. It [the tax cap giveback] calls into question everything that’s on the table right now.”

The speaker indicated the lame duck governor is less concerned with the state’s fiscal health than the Legislature. “If you remember, he’s always wanted to spend all of the money, so this is not a change of behavior for him,” Mariano said, in an apparent reference to federal COVID relief money. “But, with us, we’ve always been a little more cautious knowing that we’re in a bit of uncertain economic times – huge inflation state, gas prices volatile, oil supplies in jeopardy from the Far East. There are a lot of things in play here.”

The speaker acknowledged tinkering with the 1986 tax cap law could be a tall order politically. “I’m not going to be the only decision maker in this process,” he said. “It would have to go through the House and Senate and have to be voted on and signed by the governor.”

The tax cap was approved by voters in 1986 as a way to make sure the state returns excess tax revenues above the growth rate of wages and salaries to taxpayers. The law has come into play only once before, in 1987.

Instead of changing or scrapping the 1986 tax cap law, Mariano was asked if it might make more sense for the Legislature to scrap its tax relief package, which is still in a conference committee, Mariano suggested the Legislature’s plan is superior.

“Our plan has been vetted. It’s gone through two committees, both in the House and Senate, so I think it’s a well thought-out plan that will work, that’s sustainable, that is permanent. This 1986 thing that popped up is a one-time event that we knew existed but we didn’t know how close we were. The formula’s very convoluted. We don’t even know for sure how accurate the numbers are and we won’t know until September.”

Mariano wasn’t present on Friday at the signing of an abortion rights bill, a small event attended by only the governor and Senate President Karen Spilka. Mariano said he didn’t need to be at the bill signing, but said it was probably best he didn’t go.

“I’m a little unhappy with the governor right now for calling out by name a couple of my members who had a policy disagreement with him, so I think it was best I wasn’t there,” Mariano said.”

On Thursday, after signing the state budget into law, Baker called out Rep. Mike Day and Sen. Jamie Eldridge for suggesting a group of abuse victims who the governor worked with to build support for his criminal dangerousness bill were part of a public relations campaign.

Baker demanded an apology from Eldridge and Day on behalf of the survivors. “We thought the comments of Chair Eldridge and Chair Day were harsh, cold, and callous in the way they responded to the survivors who came to the State House to express their dismay about that legislation being sent to study,” Baker said.

Baker sent a section of the budget making prison inmate phone calls free back to the Legislature with an amendment adding a slimmed-down version of his dangerousness bill, which would allow judges to hold more people without bail if they are considered dangerous.

Mariano said he didn’t know how the Legislature would respond to the governor’s move.

As the Legislature heads into the final weekend of its legislative session, Mariano also seemed to think there was little hope for passage of sports betting legislation. Spilka had urged Mariano to be more flexible, but Mariano said he could say the same about Spilka.

He also said it’s difficult to negotiate with the Senate on sports betting because the body hasn’t floated any proposals. He said it’s also difficult to know where senators stand because votes on amendment were taken on voice votes and not by roll calls.

“I’m not going to negotiate against myself,” he said.