Governor Deval Patrick is thinking legacy — or “What will last?” as he put it in last week’s State of the Commonwealth address.
He wants to be remembered for new and improved roads, trains, bridges, and schools — not for casinos, which went unmentioned in a long list of accomplishments he presented to Beacon Hill.
For a shot at that higher, better vision, the governor needs new revenue to spend.
He equates his need with political courage, and that’s what it will take — not from Patrick, who is leaving office in Massachusetts, but from lawmakers who want to return.
On the campaign trail for President Obama, Patrick honed an eloquent call for liberal backbone. With two years to go before he exits the governor’s office, Patrick has found his in a plan to hike the state income tax. But lest anyone think he’s going John Volpe on us, he wants to reduce the sales tax. (Volpe, a Republican governor, instituted the state’s first sales tax during his tenure in the 1960s. Now, that took real political courage.)
As tax proposals go, Patrick’s is progressive. It doesn’t penalize the least wealthy, like a tax increase on cigarettes or alcohol. But the $1.9 billion he seeks to raise is a big number. And while he smartly cast the choice as growth and investment versus stagnation and status quo, lawmakers can’t hide behind the governor’s euphemisms. It adds up to a huge tax increase and they will be the ones voting for it.
That explains the lack of wild applause once Patrick began speaking in the House chamber. Indeed, after he declared, “there is no good time to raise taxes,” Patrick joked that he knew “this is where silence would fall.”
Even in a state controlled by Democrats, the scope of what he wants is cause for hesitation. He proposes to increase the current 5.25 percent income tax rate to 6.25 percent. Beacon Hill has always ignored a voter-approved ballot question from 2002 that was supposed to gradually lower the income tax to 5 percent, but this shows even more contempt for that old taxpayer sentiment.
Patrick wants money for new rail lines and assorted other ambitious transportation projects. While there’s support in the business community for a modest tax increase to cover MBTA debt and deferred maintenance, there’s also a legitimate call for more accountability from the T. For example, The Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank, is willing to support a reasonable tax increase for transportation maintenance and repair, but only after certain reforms are embraced.
In a statement put out before Patrick’s speech, Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios called the governor’s transportation plan a “hyper-inflated” wish list and said it was “the height of irresponsibility” to offer over $3.1 billion to the MBTA. The T needs additional funds for track, signals, and new stock, said Stergios, but as an agency of “questionable efficiency” it should receive smaller investments and only after proving itself through on-time delivery and service improvements.
Meanwhile, if the largest tax hike in state history does come to pass, Democrats will own it. It has a familiar ring to it.
The last two years of Michael Dukakis’ term as governor were marked by significant tax increases, approved by a legislature controlled by Democrats, to cover revenue losses connected to an economic downturn.
Patrick is much more popular than Dukakis, who was much criticized after losing the 1988 presidential election to George H.W. Bush. But a key political question is how much of Patrick’s personal popularity will carry over into the next governor’s race.
In 1990, Dukakis turned the governor’s office over to Republican William F. Weld, who ran against Taxachusetts, even as he benefited from the new revenue. Democrats didn’t win the office back until Patrick’s victory in 2006.
No one does speeches and glad-handing better than Patrick. He’s as good as Bill Clinton, and less indulgent when it comes to time. He has the gaze and grasp of a master campaigner and looks like he enjoys it. He exudes empathy and rebuffs elitism. He speaks with poetry and passion about opportunity.
Is that enough to get him the revenue he needs for the legacy he wants?