BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick appears to have done the impossible in Massachusetts politics: He has the Democrats and Republicans working together on a common cause. Unfortunately, he is the cause and they are working against him.
In both the state House and Senate, most legislators representing the Merrimack Valley agree that a sales tax increase is bad, the $27.4 billion budget isn't much better, and Patrick's insistence that he'll veto anything until an ethics bill is passed is nothing more than political posturing.
Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, for instance, voted against the sales tax, but also is against the alcohol tax because of his district's close proximity to New Hampshire.
"Our economy in the Merrimack Valley is going to get hit hard as a result of taxes in this budget," said Baddour, who voted in favor of the final spending plan but has vowed to sustain Patrick's threatened veto of the sales tax, which he doesn't really think will happen.
"I don't think he'll veto any of the tax bills," Baddour said, "because he would have to make significant cuts, which I don't think he wants to do."
Republican state Rep. Bradley Jones of Reading agreed. He voted against the sales tax and the budget, and also would vote to sustain a threatened veto.
"This is grand political theater," he said of Patrick's threat to veto the sales tax, which would throw the whole budget into turmoil. "It's just political posturing."
Patrick, who has consistently opposed the sales tax increase and pushed instead for a gas tax hike, said he would veto the sales tax that was part of the budget sent to him on Friday if the Legislature fails to approve a new ethics reform bill. Patrick had sought three reform bills from the Legislature: Transportation, pension and ethics. Two of the three have been passed, with an ethics bill close to approval.
Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, voted against the sales tax and the budget and would welcome a veto, saying it could give the governor and the Legislature an opportunity to make real cuts and real reform, not window-dressing changes combined with knee-jerk taxes.
"We offered, as Senate Republicans, a bipartisan package of $1 billion in reforms that would have generated more savings than a sales tax increase would have generated in revenues," he said.
Furthermore, he said, an ethics reform bill has been underway for some time, with Tarr serving on the committee that is coming up with a final bill.
"The governor is asking the wrong question," he said. "Independent of an ethics bill, is the sales tax an appropriate venue to balance the state budget? I'd say it isn't."
Sen. Sue Tucker, D-Andover, joined some of her Merrimack Valley colleagues in voting against the sales tax, but decided to cast her vote in favor of the budget, adding that a veto would be ill-advised.
"I can't imagine how he'd veto the sales tax," she said. "He'd have to rewrite the entire budget, and we'd be back at ground zero, with the fiscal year that starts July 1. It would wreak havoc on cities and towns who need to know local aid numbers. It would be very complicated."
But some said a veto would be just fine.
Rep. David Torrisi, D-North Andover, hopes the governor vetoes the sales tax increase. He voted against the sales tax and the budget, noting that there are close to $1 billion in new taxes in the plan.
"I don't think we can tax our way out of this problem," he said. "I've been part of a family business right on the New Hampshire border for years, so I'm sensitive to the New Hampshire factor. We've seen retail business leave the Merrimack Valley in droves over the years."
He said the Lowell legislative delegation voted unanimously against the sales tax and the budget, whereas Merrimack Valley lawmakers weren't quite as cohesive.
Rep. Barbara L'Italien, for example, voted both in favor of the sales tax and the budget, and would join fellow lawmakers in voting to override the veto. Most interviewed this week said there are enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto of the sales tax.
"Revenue forecasts are down by $1.5 billion," she said, noting that the sales tax is needed to help pay for growing gaps in the budget, such as local aid, while also restoring the safety net for the less fortunate and providing funding for the state's transportation system.
Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, voted for the sales tax, but felt the rest of the budget was loaded down with too many other taxes and not enough cuts. He would sustain a veto.
"Part of my discussion relative to supporting the sales tax is that we'd have more reform and restructuring and more cuts," he said. "My decision to vote against the budget is based on the fact that we didn't do as much as we could have in some of the other areas."
He said many taxpayers he's spoken with would rather have cuts in services rather than increases in taxes.
Rep. William Lantigua, D-Lawrence, voted for the sales tax and the budget simply because it means more local aid to Lawrence, which the city needs.
"We can't cut everything, we need revenue," he said, noting that he would vote to override the governor's veto of the sales tax.
Rep. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, voted for the sales tax and the budget, and also would vote to override the veto.
"We're not trying to borrow our way out, or pass the debt onto young people," he said. "We are doing a lot of cutting and making difficult decisions. In all my years, I've never seen as big a drop in revenue as in the last six to 10 months."
Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, agreed, noting that the state is in a financial crisis and needs to move forward.
"It's time to pass the budget given falling revenues," she said. "If we delay, it will cause further unemployment and cuts to cities and towns."