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Scot Lehigh

A breath of fresh air on Beacon Hill

Dan Winslow’s official title is state representative, but a more apt moniker would be ideas merchant.

During the first two days of this week’s House budget debate, the 53-year-old Republican freshman from Norfolk offered a plan to squeeze another $70 million or so out of cigarette sales without raising the price of the product — and proposed using that money to offset some of the 23 percent MBTA fare hikes scheduled for July 1.

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He also highlighted a scheme to turn the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-93 into the kind of “High Occupancy Toll,” or HOT, lanes that states such as Florida and California are using to reduce rush-hour congestion. The price to use the lanes would vary with traffic volume, but be designed to ensure a predictably quick trip to and from town, says Winslow, who estimates the new toll revenue would generate at least $16 million for the state’s hard-pressed Department of Transportation.

That’s just part of his ambitious agenda. His 16 budget amendments include a plan to have the state treasurer help Community Preservation Act localities use the property tax surcharge they’ve levied under the act to float bonds for preservation-related construction projects. Another would put court-appointed attorneys in charge of collecting the $150 contribution the state requires of most defendants who receive a state-funded defense. A third would direct the University of Massachusetts to explore offering a tuition-saving three-year degree program. Yet another would extend state fiscal guarantees to help credit-worthy homeowners refinance jumbo mortgages.

Why has Winslow emerged as such a breath of fresh and imaginative air? Part of it, certainly, is the knowledge that comes from his unusual background: He has been both a district court judge and the governor’s chief legal counsel during the first two years of Mitt Romney’s governorship. But part of it is a combination of personal qualities rare in the Legislature. Winslow is smart, energetic, imaginative, impatient, and media savvy — and unafraid to speak up.

Take, for example, his cigarette-tax plan. Currently, the state sets a minimum price for cigarettes, a regulatory move originally designed to prevent cigarettes from being used as loss leaders; the Commonwealth assesses its tax atop that price. Winslow would cut the state-specified price by about 50 cents, and replace it, penny-for-penny, with a cigarette tax increase. So though tax revenue would go up, cigarette prices wouldn’t. But wouldn’t that be a tough blow for small store owners? No, Winslow contends, because the cigarette manufacturers and wholesalers wouldn’t allow a store’s profit margin to drop to the point where it’s no longer worthwhile to stock their products.

As for converting the HOV lanes into pay lanes, it shouldn’t be seen as just a convenience for the well-to-do, Winslow says. “They would be available to anyone for whom time matters: the plumber who wants to squeeze in one last job before the end of the day, the working mom trying to pick up her kids at day care before the fines start kicking in,” he says. Meanwhile, by diverting other cars from the untolled lanes, it would benefit drivers there, too.

State Representative Dan Winslow is smart, energetic, imaginative, impatient, and media savvy — and unafraid to speak up.

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Now, with the Democratic leaders exerting tight control over both chambers, and with House Speaker Robert DeLeo having declared an election-year tax moratorium, it’s hard slogging for any Republican, even one as energetic as Winslow. So far, he has enjoyed much better success highlighting his ideas than passing them. Although his amendment calling for a study of a three-year-degree program passed, his HOT lanes plan went down to defeat, as did his mortgage-refinancing proposal and his cigarette-tax plan. Still, even the prominent Democrat who led the floor debate against the last idea conceded it merits a closer look.

“He caught my attention with that,” said Jay Kaufman, House chairman of the Revenue Committee. “It’s an interesting idea.”

Win or lose, Winslow is livening things up on Beacon Hill. Although he insists his only current political ambition is reelection, he’s obviously a rising star — and exactly the kind of idea entrepreneur the GOP needs as it goes about rebuilding in Massachusetts.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at
lehigh@globe.com.
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