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SCOT LEHIGH

Lesson for a lame duck

Our governor is about to suffer a stinging rebuke. The man most responsible for that?

Deval Laurdine Patrick.

Continue reading below

Patrick and his team have over-reached badly on his big tax-and-spending package. He now faces this choice: Settle for much less or risk getting nothing at all.

Instead of the $1.9 billion tax-and-spending hike Patrick wants, the House has passed a $500 million plan. The Senate appears likely to land in a similar place on new revenues, though somewhat higher on spending.

Patrick has denounced any plan of the size the House favors as inadequate and has vowed a veto, a threat he reiterated on Tuesday. When asked about the minimum he would accept, the governor said he would be willing to meet the Legislature halfway, which would mean a package of about $1.2 billion. But even that the figure is considerably higher than either chamber is willing to go.

That means a game of chicken may well loom. In response to Patrick’s veto threat, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey has warned that if the Legislature can’t overrride Patrick’s veto, it’s unlikely the House will consider another tax package.

That would mean no new taxes at all — and no infusion of cash for the MBTA.

It’s a strange state of affairs for Beacon Hill to have arrived at.

So what happened?

In simple terms, Patrick overestimated his persuasiveness and overplayed his hand. Everyone knew state policymakers would have to address transportation, and particularly the MBTA, this year. One legislative source says that late last year, when Patrick mentioned the possibility of an income-tax hike, Speaker Robert DeLeo told him there just wasn’t support for that in the House, but that he likely could rally members for a gas tax increase. DeLeo is also said to have counseled the governor to stay focused on fixing transportation.

Patrick ignored that counsel. In his plan, he pushed well beyond anything lawmakers had contemplated. His transportation scheme itself wandered miles across the border that separates necessity from wish list. Add in hundreds of millions in new education spending, and the pricetag grew beyond what the political market would bear.

Funding all that required a large tax hike. The administration was intent on keeping its tax plan a secret leading up to his Jan. 16 State of the State speech. When reporters questioned DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray about Patrick’s revenue proposal after the speech, both said they had only learned of it when reporters had.

In other words, in his efforts to preserve the news for his prime-time speech, Patrick had kept the two other most important players in the legislative process in the dark.

Why does that matter? For starters, no one likes big surprises, particularly surprises that put them on the spot. Secondly, DeLeo and Murray could have told him that his package was much too large to fly.

Then there was the incredible complexity of the governor’s revenue proposal, which calls for lowering the sales tax while raising the income tax and broadening the base to which that tax applies. Having taken the heat for hiking the sales tax back in 2009, lawmakers couldn’t see the wisdom in retreating on that front if doing so meant a large income-tax increase. And even some liberal legislators worried that a plan that had so many moving parts would include some that could blow up on them later.

Finally, some lawmakers resented Patrick’s tone. In 2010, when he himself was up for reelection, Patrick said he had no plans for a broad-based tax increase. He won’t have to answer at the ballot for this one, of course, which has made his habit of urging legislators to show some “political courage” rankle.

Had Patrick focused on working inside the building, he might have gotten DeLeo on board for a tax plan of $600 million to $700 million. Instead, Patrick seemed to believe he could generate enough outside-the-building momentum for something much larger.

It now looks like he’ll be lucky to get $600 million in new revenue.

There’s a lesson to learn from all this, a lesson about consultation and about the politics of the possible. As Patrick moves further into lame-duck-dom, the governor and his team need to take heed.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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