BOSTON >> With tax revenue growth falling short of levels needed to meet spending demands, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said over the weekend that he wants to hear from economists before rendering an updated opinion on higher taxes.
DeLeo's opinion on tax increases carries extra weight on Beacon Hill — tax hikes must originate in the House that he runs — and the Winthrop Democrat has alternated over the years between support and opposition for tax increases. Senators who favor tax increases this session have found an unwilling partner in DeLeo, who has aligned himself with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker among opponents of higher taxes.
But in 2009 DeLeo pushed for and accomplished an increase in the sales tax, raising it from 5 percent to 6.25 percent, and increasing the state's revenue haul by a projected $900 million. DeLeo at the time said the Legislature's options were limited with cratering revenues.
Over his career, DeLeo has supported other tax hikes, including higher levies on cigarettes and gas. And DeLeo joined his Democratic colleagues this year in advancing to the next session a 4 percent surtax on household incomes above $1 million that analysts say could generate $1.9 billion a year in new revenues.
Appearing on WBZ-TV Sunday morning, DeLeo told host Jon Keller his goal "has always been" to stay away from broad-based tax hikes.
"That would be, has always been, my goal. Having said that, I feel that in December we have our revenue hearings and then we go into the budget process. I think it's only fair for me to listen to the economists around the state and see what their views are, what their recommendations would be," DeLeo said. "But as you know my history has been to stay away from taxes, but I want to let people make their statement."
DeLeo ruled out taxes for the fiscal 2017 budget in mid-December following House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey's comments that taxes are "not on the table at all" after hearing revenue forecasts from economists. In February 2015, DeLeo announced the fiscal 2016 House budget would not include taxes or fees.
Despite low unemployment and prolonged economic growth in Massachusetts, fiscal 2016 state tax revenues totaled $25.267 billion, an increase of only $550 million or 2.2 percent from fiscal 2015. During July and August, total tax revenues are up 1.3 percent over the same period in fiscal 2016 and are running $36 million below budget benchmarks. The revenue trends, combined with spending patterns, are forcing Baker to consider midyear spending reductions.
In 2013, DeLeo and then Senate President Therese Murray agreed on a tax plan that was largely unchanged in floor debate by either branch, lifting the gas tax 3 cents per gallon while hitching future increases to inflation, the cigarette tax by $1 per pack, and taxing certain computer services. Lawmakers repealed the "tech tax" soon after its enactment and voters in 2014 repealed the legislation hitching the gas tax to inflation.
Taxes will come up again in the 2017-2018 legislative session. The proposed constitutional amendment raising $1.9 billion from the highest earners cleared the Constitutional Convention this session and a second favorable vote would put that matter before voters in November 2018.
The speaker also remarked Sunday on the differing ideological makeup of the House and Senate, which is led by Amherst Democrat Sen. Stan Rosenberg, keying off Sen. Jamie Eldridge's encouragements to liberal activists to challenge the establishment.
Saying there are "more moderates in the House than there are in the Senate" and that diverging viewpoints are good to have within the Democratic party, DeLeo said he is proud that his party "has a wide tent."
"We can have the liberals. We can have the moderates. We can have the conservatives, and we can all work together for the betterment of the party," DeLeo said. He said, "I think we're doing just fine the way we are."
DeLeo questioned the wisdom of Democrats limiting their party's scope to the progressive wing, saying he was not sure why Democrats would go "the same route to our friends in the Republican Party with having that Tea Party subdivision."
"There's probably more moderates in the House than there are in the Senate and that's okay," DeLeo added. "That's what makes Massachusetts great in terms of debate."