The political play’s the thing, and in Massachusetts anyone can be a prop as Governor Deval Patrick pitches for new taxes.
The poor, the disabled, students from pre-school to college, MBTA riders — if we don’t raise taxes, conditions will worsen for all of them. Services for the most vulnerable will be cut. Tuition, fees, and fares will go up.
Patrick frames his preferred option — a nearly $2 billion tax package — as “choosing growth.” Under his equation, to make Massachusetts grow, taxes must grow, too. We cannot reform our way to investment, he insists.
Of course, Patrick is negotiating. He’s starting with a big number and hoping to reach a reasonable middle ground. To get there, Patrick is holding conference calls to urge human service advocates to lobby for his tax proposal. With his usual eloquence, the governor is calling his quest a “generational responsibility” to invest in education and infrastructure, the kind made by the World War II generation.
Basically, he’s pushing the buttons Democrats regularly push to get lawmakers on board for tax increases. But so far, the button-pushing isn’t working the way it used to.
“I’m worried that the administration’s proposal places too heavy a burden on working families and businesses struggling to survive,’’ House Speaker Robert DeLeo said last week in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “If we are to pass a new revenue package, I believe it should be far more narrow in scope and of a significantly smaller size,” he said.
Specifically addressing transportation funding, DeLeo said he backed a smaller package than the expansive one proposed by Patrick. Massachusetts should address the T’s debt, said DeLeo, and not commit to the large-scale investments in roads, bridges, trains, and buses that Patrick wants.
Beacon Hill’s resistance is partly related to Patrick’s lame-duck status. While the governor calls upon lawmakers to demonstrate political courage, he’s in the middle of his second and last term. Rumors continue to surface that he might leave office before his term is over. The skeptics under the Golden Dome face reelection, and they also have long memories. The last time Democrats signed onto a big tax hike, it led to 16 years of Republican governors.
But the reluctance to automatically accept huge tax increases is also a sign of the times. The hesitance is directly connected to an economy that forced middle-class Americans to adjust to dramatic cuts in income and a downsized lifestyle. It leaves many citizens, and even some liberals, wondering why government can’t make the same painful choices average citizens are making in their own lives.
That basic question undercut dire warnings about the impact of sequestration — the automatic spending cuts that went into effect when Congress and the White House could not agree on an alternative budget plan. President Obama rolled out all the serious consequences, the country yawned, and sequestration clicked in. When and if the pain of programs lost hits home in a personal way, there may be more general interest in the debate over new revenue. But the public is growing numb to photo-ops and headlines about all that will be lost if new revenue doesn’t come through.
People simply don’t believe there are no more cuts to be made or efficiencies to achieve. They don’t trust government in Washington or in the blue state of Massachusetts.
That much has filtered down, even to Massachusetts liberals. That’s why DeLeo put it right to Patrick in his speech to the Chamber. The House speaker said he wouldn’t get behind the governor’s big tax increase.
“We seek to fund the priorities we need to enhance the economy, without creating collateral damage,” DeLeo said. “In this manner we will lay the course and foundation for future investments in these key areas.”
So, let’s cut to the chase and the priorities. Let’s throw out the wish list and get to the necessities. Maybe we can’t reform our way to investment, but maybe we can reform our way to legitimate savings.
Let’s respect the public’s intelligence and stop using fellow citizens as props in a tired political play.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.