April 9, 2017

On Beacon Hill: Taxing routines trump legislative progress

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

The Great Hall was packed April 5 with hundreds of immigrants and advocates who pushed for passage of the Safe Communities Act (S 1305 / H 3269), which would prevent use of state resources to enforce federal immigration law. The bills have 75 House co-sponsors and 17 co-sponsors in the Senate.

Recap and analysis of the week in state, and federal, government
from State House News Service

BOSTON — President Donald J. Trump and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg may finally have a common interest: tax reform.

While that may be the point where their shared agendas start to diverge, the topic that Beacon Hill leaders largely like to avoid may soon become something they can’t escape.

The federal debate over tax reform appears headed toward a package of tax cuts, while Massachusetts voters will almost certainly be asked to decide in 2018 whether households should pay a surtax on incomes over $1 million to generate additional revenue for state government.

Enter Rosenberg, who in a speech to the Greater Boston business leaders last week pleaded with the community not to embrace the Retailers Association of Massachusetts’s pitch for a sales tax cut as he took a stab at explaining a conundrum that has vexed budget writers for years now.

State House News Service file

Senate President Stan Rosenberg

The strength of the state economy, including low unemployment, has done little to stabilize state finances or generate the tax revenue growth necessary for Democratic leaders to comfortably invest in education, rail expansions and other projects on their wish lists.

March brought another round of collections that missed benchmarks, and the state now trails revenue projections for the year by $220 million with just three months left in the fiscal year.

Rosenberg suggested that a tax system reliant on income gains and taxes on the sales of goods has failed to capture the nature of the new service-based economy.

“The bill is finally coming due,” he warned, calling the state’s tax structure “regressive.”

The Amherst Democrat suggested it was “certainly worth looking at” a revival of the sales tax on business and professional services passed under Gov. Michael Dukakis and repealed by Gov. William Weld.

But even if that’s just one suggestion, Rosenberg raised an interesting question and one that might not soon go away. True tax reform has not been attempted since Gov. Deval Patrick, late in his second term, put a package on the table that would have raised the income tax, lowered the sales tax and eliminated a variety of exemptions, but it barely got a look by skeptical legislators.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo recognized the need for revenue in 2013, but opted for increases in gas and cigarette taxes that haven’t produced the revenue jolt that DeLeo’s 2009 sales tax hike did.

Gov. Charlie Baker may not be champing at the bit to entertain straight tax hikes, but the possibility of a more comprehensive tax revamp is exactly the reason he refused to take a no-new-taxes pledge in 2014 when he was running for governor, and may be the opening Democrats need to start the debate, if not for now then perhaps the years to come.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Infrastructure spending hits detour in Legislature
  • Video: State House chamber becomes Patriots’ place
  • Corporate campaign donations run into judicial roadblock
  • McGovern on Trump; Moore on student leaders
  • Longtime congressman earns Roosevelt award
  • Smoking age debate simmers in House

LOOKING AHEAD

A long road before bridging the gap

Even the routine isn’t that routine anymore.

The House and Senate are at odds over how to fund local road and bridge repairs through the Chapter 90 program, an annual exercise that seldom makes for controversy. But after the House continued the recent tradition of passing a one-year, $200 million authorization, the Senate decided to stir the pot and go for a two-year bill at $400 million total.

Sam Doran (SHNS / file photo)

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo

Gov. Baker said he would consider signing a two-year bill, but the timing is becoming problematic. The lack of a deal between branch leaders is delaying the release of needed funding to communities who want to get a jump on the limited construction season.

Second, some of the more politically minded around the State House found it curious to try to switch to a two-year funding cycle now, in an odd-numbered year, rather than wait until next year so that lawmakers could take a popular vote during an election year.

Cities and towns aren’t about to object to a multi-year bill after seeking one for years, but insiders say they’re not exactly popping champagne either over the prospect of locking in funding at $200 million a year for multiple years when they want $300 million, at least.

A conference committee will now try to resolve the impasse before the Legislature breaks for school vacation week and the House becomes involved in its budget debate the week of April 24.

— Matt Murphy

VIDEO OF THE WEEK

State House turns into Patriots’ Place

NOTED

Superior Court judge upholds limits on corporate campaign donations

A state law banning corporations from making political donations survived a legal challenge last week when a Superior Court judge ruled against two local business owners seeking to overturn the restriction.

Judge Paul Wilson found that the campaign finance laws on the books do not unconstitutionally discriminate against a business’s right to free speech or equal protection.

He also ruled that the Office of Campaign and Political Finance successfully showed that the law treating unions and corporations differently “serves the anti-corruption interest” used by the state as justification for the law.

[embeddoc url=”http://worcester.ma/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/04-06CorporateDonationsDecision.pdf” download=”all”]

The law banning corporations from making monetary donations to candidates, political parties or political committees was challenged in February 2015 by Michael Kane, the owner of 126 Self Storage in Ashland, and Rick Green, president of 1A Auto Inc. in Pepperell.

Both Kane and Green, who founded the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, are politically active and took exception with the law that banned them from making corporate contributions while Democrat-allied labor unions were allowed to make up to $15,000 in contributions each cycle.

Corporations can and do contribute freely to ballot question campaigns, and business owners can establish PACs on their own using the business name.

— Matt Murphy

A LITTLE BIRDIE …

In wake of Syria attack, McGovern calls out travel ban

Moore touts Student Government Day at State House

IN THE NEWS

From a Massachusetts Democratic Party press release

McGovern and Boston city councilor to receive Roosevelt awards

BOSTON – The Massachusetts Democratic Party has named U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern and Boston City Council President Michelle Wu as this year’s recipients of the party’s Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Awards.

Bestowed annually upon two distinguished Democrats, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Awards are the highest honors presented by the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Congressman McGovern and Councilor Wu will be honored at the party’s annual Roosevelt Award dinner May 31 at the Omni Parker House in Boston.

“As leaders in our state and national Democratic Party, Congressman McGovern and Council President Wu are continuing the fight to build on the New Deal agenda started by President and Mrs. Roosevelt,” party chairman Gus Bickford said.

Office of Congressman Jim McGovern

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern

“Massachusetts families know that our communities are strongest when we lift up those in need. Thanks to the New Deal signed by President Roosevelt, millions of Americans were able to rise out of poverty and reach the middle class,” McGovern said. “Strengthening the social safety net is essential to building a growing economy where every family has a chance to get ahead. I am incredibly humbled by this award and will continue to work with our delegation in Congress to ensure we never stop fighting for the least among us.”

First elected to Congress in 1996, McGovern has earned a national reputation as a tireless advocate for his district and as a champion for food security, human rights, campaign finance reform, social justice and peace. Serving his 11th term in Congress, McGovern serves as the second ranking Democrat on the powerful House Rules Committee, which sets the terms for debate and amendments on most legislation and as a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

House shapes up as key battleground in tobacco age fight

Anti-smoking advocates are renewing their push to raise the tobacco-buying age to 21 across all of Massachusetts.

More than 140 cities and towns in Massachusetts have passed measures lifting the minimum purchase age for tobacco products from 18 to 21 — Worcester did so last June — and a bill that would make the higher age a statewide policy passed the state Senate 32-2 last year.

Recently, a group of more than 100 cancer patients, survivors, families and volunteers with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network visited Beacon Hill to ask lawmakers to support a tobacco control bill that includes the three-year age boost. The lobbying continued last week as a former smoker featured in Center for Disease Control videos met with legislators.

Flickr

State legislators are expected to consider raising the legal age to buy cigarettes and smoking products from 18 to 21 statewide.

Brian Hayden, who quit smoking eight years ago and participates in the CDC’s “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign, said he “started playing with cigarettes in elementary school” and was smoking at least a pack a day by the time he enrolled in the Air Force at 18. At 35, he suffered a heart attack while stationed in England.

Hayden said raising the tobacco age to 21 “may be the most important thing that our Legislature is going to have to do this year.”

Supporters of the higher age restriction say it would keep tobacco products out of the social networks of younger teens, who are more likely to go to school with or have other ties to 18- and 19-year-olds who could illegally provide them with cigarettes.

According to the Coalition for Responsible Retailing, 86 percent of minors who use cigarettes obtain them in ways other than purchasing them at a retail store.

The coalition — comprised of the New England Convenience Store Association, New England Service Station and Auto Repair Association, Retailers Association of Massachusetts and National Association of Tobacco Outlets — takes the stance that additional limits on tobacco sales restrict adults’ rights to purchase legal products without protecting minors.

Instead, the coalition calls for a regulatory structure it says would treat tobacco like alcohol, including fines for adults who provide tobacco products and language that would make the underage purchase of tobacco — rather than just the sale to a minor — illegal.

Along with raising the purchase age to 21, the tobacco control bills filed by Sen. Jason Lewis and Rep. Paul McMurtry would ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places, and prohibit tobacco sales in pharmacies and other health care facilities.

Both bills (S 1218 and H 2864) are before the Joint Committee on Public Health, which Lewis co-chairs with Rep. Kate Hogan.

The Senate passed similar legislation last April, and the House did not take it up.

Hawaii and California each raised their tobacco age to 21 last year.

More than half of the municipalities and counties that have raised their minimum legal sale age to 21 are in Massachusetts, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. As of March 16, the campaign said at least 220 localities — 144 of which were in Massachusetts — had adopted the higher age. Also on the list were Washington, D.C.; seven New York counties and New York City; Central Falls, Rhode Island; and Portland, Maine.

— Katie Lannan

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