By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — The Massachusetts House quietly added an amendment to its $38.1 billion budget bill this week that newly opens the door for the Senate to advance proposals raising or reducing taxes, according to Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.
Under the state constitution, “money bills” must originate in the House, and in recent years when former Senate President Therese Murray wielded the gavel, House-approved budgets have been deemed not to be money bills.
Senate Clerk William Welch, who advises members on parliamentary matters, told the News Service a money bill is defined as legislation that concerns the taking of property – usually in the form of taxes – and it can either increase or decrease taxes to receive that designation.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo maintained heading into this week’s budget deliberations that the House budget would not include any tax hikes, and the document that unanimously passed the chamber Wednesday afternoon was in keeping with the speaker’s promise.
However, the House during its floor debate quietly approved a $3 million annual cap increase in a tax credit for conservation land. That secured the House budget’s designation as a money bill, in the estimation of Rosenberg.
“I know for sure that with that provision it is a money bill,” Rosenberg told the News Service.
The Amherst Democrat said members would be free to debate tax changes during mid-May budget deliberations and suggested nothing would be deemed out of bounds. He said, “Members have the right to file any amendments they choose and they will all be considered.”
During an interview on Greater Boston in March, Rosenberg said many people want greater investment in areas of government, but said Gov. Charlie Baker’s and the speaker’s insistence they will not raise taxes puts a limit on potential investments.
“The Speaker has spoken. The governor has spoken. Money bills start in the House. They don’t start in the Senate. If it comes over from the House without any new taxes in it then the Senate cannot raise the question of revenue,” Rosenberg said.
The Senate Ways and Means budget will be released the week of May 11, and budget debate will take place the following week. Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka declined, through an aide, to comment on what effect the money-bill designation might have on the committee’s proposal.
In 2013 a slew of Senate Republican amendments – to roll back the sales tax, increase a tax credit and establish a permanent sales tax holiday – were all ruled unconstitutional during budget deliberations. Proposals from Senate Democrats to expand or curtail tax credits were also ruled unconstitutional.
The Legislature passed a separate tax hike that year on tobacco and gasoline.
Since he took the presidency this January, Rosenberg has called for an increase in the earned income tax credit, which benefits low-income workers.
Baker proposed a separate piece of legislation to shelf the film tax credit and use the savings to help pay for a doubling of the earned income tax credit. The House budget preserves the film industry tax credit and does not address the earned income tax credit.
Having noticed the House’s inclusion of the land conservation tax credit and what it could mean for the Senate’s budget, Sen. Benjamin Downing is considering his own tax amendment and he predicted there would be many other proposals to change state tax policy.
“I’d be surprised if we don’t end up with a lot of members filing something,” said Downing, who predicted the proposals would go in “both directions.”
Downing is thinking of filing an amendment to bump up the earned income tax credit while freezing the current 5.15 percent income tax rate, which could fall in future years to 5 percent if economic triggers are hit. He said the Revenue Committee is working on the issue and he is unsure whether he will file it as a budget amendment.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, cheered the news that senators would be freed up to offer tax-related amendments and said he would focus on corporate tax breaks and ways to create “more transparency in how we offer tax breaks in Massachusetts.”
“There’s a need for greater investments, so the opportunity for legislators to offer amendments to raise revenues are something that I’m encouraged by and I look forward to that debate,” Eldridge told the News Service.
The amendment that convinced Rosenberg the House budget is a money bill was filed by Rep. Brian Mannal, a Barnstable Democrat, and it would increase the availability of a land conservation tax credit from $2 million to $5 million per year.
Mannal told the News Service he was not aware the Senate would use the adoption of his amendment to interpret the entire budget as a money bill – opening it up to tax law changes.
“I suppose that’s the kind of thing that in a bicameral Legislature gets worked out in the conference committee,” Mannal said. He said, “I’m sure they’ll look for any opportunity they can to add their two cents to the bill, literally.”
House Chairman of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Paul Schmid said the credit provides compensation for land owners who donate development rights on their property. The credit allows people to continue owning the land and to use it for farming, Schmid said.
The House and Senate counsel’s offices did not respond to requests for information about whether the House budget is a money bill.
A spokesman for DeLeo referred the News Service to the state constitution and declined to answer additional questions, such as whether the House intentionally converted its budget into a money bill.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who has jousted with the Democratic leadership over the constitutionality of filing tax cut amendments to bills, said he considers every budget a money bill.
“It seems to me that a spending document that is in the tens of billions of dollars almost invariably would be a money bill,” Tarr told the News Service. He said, “I welcome the interpretation of the Senate president that the budget is a money bill, and I believe it’s a correct interpretation of the rules.”