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State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Oops, They Did It Again

Recap and analysis of the week in state government.

A weekly round up of news from Beacon Hill. Photo Credit: Patch File Photo.
A weekly round up of news from Beacon Hill. Photo Credit: Patch File Photo.

By Matt Murphy/State House News Service

The preferred terminology was "evolve," which is a more pleasant way of describing the Darwinian contortions undertaken this week by Beacon Hill's powerbrokers who, watching President Obama deal with Congress on Syria, realized they, too, needed an exit strategy.

The sales tax on software design services may not rise to the sensitivity level of walking back a proposed military strike on a foreign nation, but its prospects for repeal needed a bit of finessing nonetheless.

The drumbeat for abandoning the more simply-dubbed tech tax has been growing for months, thumped by Republicans, a few Democrats and the tech sector itself. The crescendo peaked Tuesday when Gov. Deval Patrick called the tax "a serious blot" on the state's reputation as a hub for innovation, and called for its repeal.

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The governor's principled stand with the business community required a bit of short-term memory loss, glossing over the fact that he first was the first to propose a broader tax on computer and software services. "Do I still support? I've vetoed this, remember. So, no," he said when asked to clarify his position on the tax, even though his veto of the transportation financing bill had nothing to do with the software tax.

But Patrick, like House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, would eventually come around to owning their mistake. Just don't call it a flip-flop.      

"Some of the people who were advocating that we reconsider this were advocating then that it be passed and that it be passed over my veto, so I think a lot of us have evolved over time and we've done that by listening and that's a good thing," Patrick said.

Standing in the speaker's office with three well-known business figures, Murray and DeLeo said Thursday they would put a repeal of the software sales tax before the members in the coming weeks, almost assuredly a slam dunk. Legislative leaders made the best decision they could at the time with the information at hand, Murray and DeLeo said, but circumstances changed. Some, like High Tech Council President Chris Anderson, attributed the chain of events that led to the tax to the runaway train school of modern Bay State political science.

Even Massachusetts Competitive Partnership's Dan O'Connell was there to share in the shame. We in the business community underestimated the negative impacts of this tax," said O'Connell, a former Patrick economic development advisor. 

And as for the $161 million from the tax used to balance the fiscal 2014 budget? Months ago those were critical new funds desperately needed to anchor transportation and budget investments. Well, we might not need it after all. Let's just wait and see, they said. There may be other pots of dough available.

So will repeal completely erase the stain of the 2013 tech tax on the 188th General Court? Probably not. But it's easier to campaign on a willingness to fix a problem than to try to defend one. Imagine the smiles on Republican faces next fall if Democrats were trying to explain an unpopular tax hike amid a well-financed, business-led ballot drive to repeal it. Actually, that's probably just the type of imagining that occurred before this week's reversals.

"I think I heard the word evolution," House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said, by way of explanation for the abrupt reversal unseen in these parts since Bill Weld took office in 1991 and signed a repeal of a three-month-old sales tax on - you guessed it - services.

The capitol drama played out over crunch-time campaigning for candidates for mayor of Boston and Congress, with the 12 would-be Tom Menino successors - make that 11 since David Wyatt seemed to not want to be there - fighting for airtime during the first televised NECN debate.

Many candidates had their moment. Some - Felix Arroyo - wanted more. And Mayor Menino heard from a few, including Rep. Marty Walsh, who would like the urban mechanic to take his foot off the gas over the next three months rather than launching $16 billion housing initiatives that will be someone else's responsibility by January.

While Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry pursued a diplomatic solution to Syria's use of chemical weapons rather than trying to force a vote on military action in a skeptical Congress, Rep. Carl Sciortino called on his fellow Democrats in the race for the 5th District seat to join him in opposition to a military strike. So they did, for the most part.

Even Sen. Edward Markey, who took Kerry's seat in the Senate, eventually found his way to "no" this week after drawing ridicule for voting "present" as the war resolution came out of committee. Still, he may never get to cast his vote. Kerry's off-hand comment in London on Monday about Syria possibly giving up its chemical weapons turned into a full-blown strategy to avoid a bombing campaign in what one local columnist dubbed a case of "Forrest Gump" diplomacy.

The 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack came and went, and three new Democrats celebrated special election victories in Fall River, Worcester and Boston. Former Governor's Councilor Carole Fiola, Dan Donahue and Dan Cullinane will soon join the House putting DeLeo's army at full strength for the first time since late 2012.

The Senate also made its formal return to work this week, passing legislation to raise the penalty for corporate manslaughter from $1,000 to $250,000, the first update in over 200 years. While DeLeo is still looking at his calendar for the opportune time to summon the House back to session, he has placed restraining orders on his fall to-do list after being bothered by the circumstances in the Jared Remy murder case.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Filed under "If I had known then what I know now," Patrick, Murray and DeLeo retreat from software services tax and back repeal. Question on replacement is still a point of contention.

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