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House speaker says no new taxes, fees for 2016

House Speaker Robert DeLeo posed for a portrait in his office at the State House.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said Sunday that the House will propose no new taxes or fees for the upcoming fiscal year, effectively closing the door on increased levies and forcing Beacon Hill to grapple with an estimated billion-dollar budget gap without a new stream of revenue.

Despite relatively good economic times, the Winthrop Democrat said the middle class is still getting squeezed — struggling "to make ends meet, whether it's to pay health care, whether it's to pay for insurance, whether it's to pay for their mortgages on their homes."

DeLeo's statement was his most definitive to date about not tapping residents any further to pay for state services. And because the state Constitution mandates that all "money bills" originate in the House, his word essentially forecloses the possibility of a Senate-initiated tax hike. And it backstops Governor Charlie Baker's no-new-taxes promise.


In a wide-ranging interview with the Globe, DeLeo indicated he is marshalling support for the transgender rights bill that he backs, in anticipation of a possible veto from Baker, a Republican.

The speaker said he believes a majority of representatives in the 160-seat chamber would back a bill to protect transgender people from discrimination in shopping malls, restaurants, and other public accommodations, but indicated there continues to be a significant current of concern among representatives about a provision guaranteeing bathroom and locker room access to transgender people.

"I think that we have to be prepared for a veto. I'm uncertain where the governor may be going or not going with this bill. And, therefore, the simple 81 [required votes for passage] turns into 108 pretty quickly," he said.

Baker, who opposed a push for transgender public accommodations during his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor, has repeatedly parried questions about where he now stands on the issue, saying while he does not want anybody to be discriminated against, "the devil is always in the details."


A spokeswoman for Baker, Lizzy Guyton, said Sunday the governor looks forward to reviewing the legislation, should it reach his desk.

Seventeen states and more than 200 cities across the country protect transgender people from discrimination in public accommodations, said Kasey Suffredini, co-chair of Freedom Massachusetts, a coalition advocating for the transgender rights bill.​

But opponents emphasize worries about the privacy rights of women and children who could feel uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with a person born with a male appearance who identifies as a woman.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, backs the legislation and the Senate is expected to comfortably pass it — so its prospects for becoming law appear to rest on the House and Baker.

"It is my hope that we're going to be getting this done," DeLeo said in the interview in his State House office, "but as of right now, I don't think we're quite there yet."

In a nod to another controversial issue, DeLeo reaffirmed his support for raising the cap on the number of charter schools, which use tax dollars from local school districts but operate with state, not district, supervision.

In 2014, the Senate rejected a House-passed plan to lift the cap, as teachers' unions worried that more charters would divert desperately needed funds from traditional public schools.

But the issue has gained new momentum as proponents of raising the limit are pressing ahead with a referendum poised to make the November ballot, as well as a lawsuit.


The speaker said he and other legislators have heard from families with children on long waiting lists for charter schools, particularly in urban areas. They believe the only path for their children to receive a good education is through a charter school, he said.

"I'll tell you, it's a tough argument to argue against — that we're standing in the way of a family and a student who feels that they can do better in a charter school setting," he said. "It's very difficult to say, 'No, we're sorry, we're not going to give you that choice.' "

DeLeo indicated he is still holding out hope that House legislation to lift the charter school cap will become law.

Among other legislative priorities DeLeo outlined for 2016: passing a bill to address the scourge of opioid abuse in the state; creating a new framework of laws for taxis and the burgeoning ride-hailing industry, which includes Uber and Lyft, to reflect new technologies; and mandating new requirements for toy guns to make sure police can clearly differentiate the facsimiles from real firearms.

He also said the House would on Wednesday take up a Senate-passed bill to repeal a law that mandates a driver's license suspension for anyone convicted of a drug crime, such as possession, unrelated to vehicle operation. He framed the effort as part of broader push on reforming the criminal justice system.

In the 40-minute interview, the speaker was lively, upbeat, and laughed easily, even when addressing personally touchy topics.


The specter of criminal prosecution, which ensnared his three predecessors in the post, has hung over DeLeo's tenure — particularly during the 2014 trial of former probation commissioner John J. O'Brien. A federal jury found O'Brien ran the department like a criminal enterprise, handing out jobs to the politically plugged-in for O'Brien's benefit.

Asked whether DeLeo takes being labeled an unindicted coconspirator by prosecutors in that trial as a black mark against his name or a badge of honor because he was never indicted, DeLeo laughed.

He repeated a common refrain: Throughout the process, he always told the truth, and he was never asked to appear before a jury or grand jury.

DeLeo, who has been speaker since 2009, also said he's been feeling better since he had gastric sleeve surgery, a weight-loss procedure, during the summer and is excited for the year ahead.

The House last year overwhelmingly voted to get rid of term limits for DeLeo, which means he could reign for a long time to come.

He said Sunday he plans on running for reelection this year and he didn't skip a beat when asked whether he has the energy to be speaker for several more years.

"I'm ready to go. I'm ready to go," he replied in a tone that indicated he sees himself in his powerful post for a while longer yet. "I feel so energized."

Joshua Miller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.Click here to subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics