GOP sticking with veteran leaders in Democratic-dominated Legislature

Jones in House and Tarr in Senate have held positions for many years

Mass. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr gestures during a news conference with Mass. Sen. Barry Finegold at the Statehouse in Boston, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

BOSTON (State House News Service) – Hoping to temper the Democratic majority’s appetite for taxes, veteran Republican lawmakers were re-elected to their leadership positions in the House and Senate on Wednesday, the first day of the 2017-2018 session.

One Republican legislative leader also criticized Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives for a “misstep” on a proposal earlier this week to rein in congressional ethics watchdogs.

With unanimous backing by their caucuses, the House and Senate minority leaders retained the positions from which they offer conservative initiatives and seek to check the agenda of Democrats who for more than half a century have controlled the Legislature.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones, of North Reading, has led his caucus since late 2002, steering the opposition party through the remaining years of Speaker Tom Finneran, the entirety of Speaker Sal DiMasi’s term and through Robert DeLeo’s eight years and counting as head of the House.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, of Gloucester, has helmed the “minority corner” or “minority crescent” since 2011, through much of the Senate presidency of Therese Murray and the beginning of Stan Rosenberg’s tenure atop the Senate. Rosenberg was re-elected to his second term as Senate president Wednesday.

While Tarr lavished praise on Rosenberg for his commitment to “shared leadership,” Jones urged DeLeo to adopt a stance against broad-based tax hikes.

“There can be no clearer or better message that we can send regarding the economy and to the taxpayers than renewing in bipartisan fashion your pledge to refrain from any broad-based statewide tax increase,” Jones said in a speech to the House on Wednesday. “The way to raise the revenues we need and the revenues we want is to broaden the base not raise the rate. I’m confident that by doing so, Mr. Speaker, you will continue to have many allies here as well as in the Corner Office.”

Such a pledge would leave open the door to more targeted tax increases on the forthcoming regulated sale of marijuana or taxes on vacation rentals – a tax the vacation rental listing site Airbnb has asked to pay.

Asked about a no-new-taxes pledge, DeLeo on Wednesday said after discussing the matter with House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey he would “be in a better position to answer that at that time.”

Asked about Jones’s suggestion, House Majority Leader Ron Mariano told the News Service, “I think that that’s the position they would like us to take. I’m not sure that speaker’s ready to take that position at this time.”

In an interview after his speech Jones said he is intrigued by Airbnb’s request for taxation and open to the idea of increasing taxes on marijuana sales to pay for implementation of legalization.

“I’m trying to think back to a time when I’ve actually seen an industry come in and say, ‘Please add some level of taxation to me,'” Jones said of Airbnb. He also acknowledged that Democrats will likely push to the 2018 ballot a measure to potentially amend the state constitution adding a 4 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million. Jones hopes the speaker will rule out broader based tax increases, such as a sales tax hike or increase in the income tax rate.

“Let’s work the next two years to live within our means, and if the voters decide they want to have more taxes in that fashion then you’ll end up having some more taxes in that fashion,” Jones said in an interview.

Mariano said depending on the performance of fiscal 2017 budget revenues, “The speaker may feel he may not need any new taxes.”

Tarr said Senate Republicans would strive for “discipline” in budgeting, seek alternatives to taxation and push for new educational alternatives. The Gloucester Republican praised the spirit of collaboration fostered by Rosenberg, which is symbolized, according to Tarr, by the purple ties – a blending of Republican red and Democrat blue – worn so often in the chamber.

Tarr also said politics around the nation puts too much emphasis on “divisiveness and conflict” and said Massachusetts pols should stand up to hatred.

“We have been given a legacy by the leaders that preceded us – some of which are depicted in busts around this chamber – of striking out against hatred and intolerance,” Tarr said on the Senate floor. “Now it is our time to defend, fortify and carry forward that legacy in these uncertain times.”

As President-elect Donald Trump continues to defy longstanding norms of his Republican party and past holders of the office he will soon attain, he presents potential quandaries, pitfalls and opportunities for Republicans throughout the country who on Jan. 20 will hold the White House as well as both houses of Congress.

“The election of Donald Trump has understandably jumbled everybody’s traditional thinking in politics, for better or worse,” Jones told the News Service.
Jones, Tarr and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker distanced themselves from the Republican presidential nominee during the election.

“I think it’s going to be very strange,” Mariano said about the Trump presidency and Republican Congress, highlighting health care as a particular area where federal changes could affect Massachusetts.

One of relatively few Republicans in one of the nation’s relatively few Democrat-majority legislatures, Jones said he was baffled by U.S. House Republicans’ move – scuttled after an outcry – to weaken congressional ethics enforcement.

“Of all the things that you talked about during the campaign or that face this nation, that was the first thing they decided to do?” Jones questioned. He said, “My hope is that initial misstep actually has a long-term benefit of people being a little more thoughtful of what they want to do.”

While aligned in broad strokes with Democrats in his desire to spread economic opportunity and improve the functions of government, Jones foresees some points of disagreement with members of the majority party, on the minimum wage – which increased to $11 per hour on Jan. 1 – and criminal justice reforms.

In the interview Jones questioned a goal voiced by the Senate president in his speech Wednesday to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for “non-violent” drug offenders. The North Reading Republican suggested dealing in major quantities of addictive poison – such as the deadly opioid fentanyl – could be considered violent.

The House minority leader also said that granting judges greater discretion over sentencing could harm justice if a defendant’s punishment depended more on the judge presiding than the facts of the case. If judges receive greater discretion in issuing sentences, Jones wants to consider measures to add oversight of judges. After they are appointed to the bench, judges can generally serve until they reach the mandatory retirement age of 70.

“To whom much is given, much is expected. If you want more discretion, when you screw up, what are the consequences?” Jones asked.

As activists have pressed for hiking the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour and Rosenberg on Wednesday called for a “more livable” minimum wage four days after it increased by one dollar, Jones said the plight of small business owners should also be considered.

“We should look at what the impact is,” Jones said of prior minimum wage increases. He said, “I think there needs to be an enhanced dose of economic reality. I know they’re always calling, ‘Come and walk in the shoes of these people for a while.’ Well come and go run a business for a while, and find out what it means when something goes up.”

Republicans hold 35 seats in the 160-seat House and six in the 40-seat Senate.