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Mass. House rejects sales tax cut

GOP bill to lower sales levy set aside First action on $32.3b budget

The Massachusetts House of Representatives killed a Republican measure Monday to lower the state sales tax to 5 percent, instead voting 119 to 37, largely along party lines, to send the proposal to a study commission.

The measure would have reduced the rate, phased in over three years, beginning in July 2013. Three years ago, lawmakers increased the sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent.

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The latest sales-tax question was the first measure debated among 870 amendments filed to the House budget that lawmakers began considering Monday. House members expect to vote on the full $32.3 billion budget later this week. The Senate will take up its own budget proposal in June. The chambers will negotiate any differences before sending a compromise to Governor Deval Patrick in time for the next budget year to begin in July.

On Monday, many House amendments were dismissed with a voice vote, including a measure from Quincy Democrat Tackey Chan to eliminate the sales tax on plug-in hybrid vehicles, which Chan said he proposed to stimulate interest in the new technology.

House leaders spent much of their time Monday in private conversations, hashing out which amendments would get a public debate and which would not. A number of measures were rolled into two packages hours before they were to be voted on.

When the House budget was approved by the Ways and Means Committee earlier this month, that vote was closed to the public.

Republicans Monday were eagerto force a vote on several measures to reduce taxes in an election year. But Democrats, who have overwhelming control of the House, used a procedural tactic to kill several tax-cut measures without a recorded vote, voting instead to set them aside for study.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo was determinedto avoid including any new fees or taxes in the House budget proposal this year, even as Governor Deval Patrick had written some into his budget plan.

Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the House Republican leader from North Reading, urged fellow representatives to consider lowering the sales tax to 5 percent because “the idea of reform and efficiency goes out the window’’ when lawmakers have more money to spend.

“The beginning of the debate should always be: It’s not our money to begin with,’’ he said. “It’s somebody else’s.’’

But Representative Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat who leads the House revenue committee, said tax cuts would mean fewer teachers, firefighters, and other state services. He said he agreed the sales tax is a regressive one, but he nonetheless refused to support a rollback.

“We are talking about draconian cuts to public services,’’ Kaufman said, adding that previous tax changes, including the 2009 sales tax increase favored by Democrats, were approved without enough study on their broad impacts to businesses and government services.

Kaufman and other Democrats also opposed a measure that would have raised the cigarette tax by $.50 a pack. The money from that tax would have been used to support the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which recently raised fares. To keep the price of cigarettes from increasing, the measure would also have reduced the state’s mandated minimum price for cigarettes.

That measure, sponsored by Norfolk Republican Daniel B. Winslow, was also sent for study.

Winslow said he believes Democrats from Boston missed an opportunity to help MBTA riders avoid some of the coming fare hike, but were pressured to oppose his measure because it was not backed by the Democrats who lead the House.

“It’s not in the script,’’ he said. “This is a highly orchestrated process.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.
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