DeLeo laying groundwork for tax talk

Within the shavings on the floor of the closeout budget conference negotiations lies a lever that House Democrats could lean on to help their case for more transportation revenue, but it would be a tricky maneuver.

Even though the House and Senate had both earlier agreed on giving Gov. Charlie Baker the $50 million he sought for a “flex force” to make swifter repairs to the MBTA, the bill that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee was $18 million short of that.

The conference report overall favored the Senate on the biggest, most controversial policy rider – corporate tax relief – but the House had started out with a slimmer bottom line, and the spending in the final version was even less than that, about $541 million. Most of the money left over from fiscal 2019 will be sent to the state’s rainy day fund under the bill that was sent to the governor.

House Ways and Means chairman Aaron Michlewitz told the State House News Service that financial commitments made in this fall’s landmark school funding bill and trepidations about the health of the economy “weighed heavily” on House-Senate negotiators figuring out how to spend the $1 billion fiscal 2019 surplus.

But it wasn’t totally out of a spirit of frugality that lawmakers held back money for the MBTA. House Speaker Robert DeLeo described the $32 million for the T in the bill as almost a down payment, or rent-to-own arrangement, ahead of the debate slated for the bigger transportation revenue debate slated for January.

“With the House focused on an upcoming transportation revenue debate, we provided $32 million to the MBTA for an immediate infusion of funds. The appropriation will help the T address its interim needs while we await clearer and more consistent information on the Administration’s spending plans,” DeLeo said.

According to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo, the $32 million will cover between 110 and 125 jobs in fiscal 2020 and 2021, and the T has almost completed the process of hiring all those people to help speed repairs to the system. But that’s somewhat short of the 200 people the T hopes to hire.

Senate President Karen Spilka has said she wants more transportation revenue, but she hasn’t committed to taking up a transportation revenue bill if the House sends her something.

Because the conference committee held back $18 million that the T clearly wants, DeLeo can create some incentive for both the Senate and the governor – who proposed the cash-infusion in the first place – to play ball on the House tax package.

Of course, for the general public trying to follow along from home, it may seem counterintuitive to deny the MBTA money one month, and then pass a tax hike to provide the MBTA even more the next.

As the Boston Globe’s Matt Stout noted, some of those clamoring for more funding for the T – including C.A. Webb of the Kendall Square Association and Brian Kane of the MBTA Advisory Board – were nonplussed by the decision to pare down the $50 million, while others – including Jim Rooney of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and Chris Dempsey of Transportation for Massachusetts – took it more in stride.

“The focus on $32 million vs. $50 million is sort of losing the forest through the trees,” said Dempsey, who is holding out for larger action.  

It may be that DeLeo tries and succeeds to leverage the T’s enduring need for funding into a tax hike, but so far the public transit funding story this session has been more about postponing legislative action and now scaling down the stopgap money. 



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