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Senate leader says tax dispute won’t delay budget

May 26, 2015

BOSTON (AP) — A constitutional dispute between the two legislative branches over the Senate’s taxation powers is an “honest disagreement” that should not delay final passage of the state’s $38 billion budget, Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg said Tuesday.

Senators approved a budget amendment last week to boost the state’s earned income tax credit for low-income working families by 50 percent over the next three years. They also voted to pay for the higher credit by freezing the state’s overall income tax rate at its current 5.15 percent, rather than allow it to gradually fall to 5 percent over the three-year period.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, citing “legal ambiguities,” on Friday asked the state’s highest court for a legal opinion on whether the Senate was within its powers to act on the tax measure, arguing the state constitution dictates that bills involving tax changes originate in the House, not the Senate.

On Tuesday, Rosenberg told reporters he had been advised by Senate lawyers that the chamber was on solid ground when it took the tax vote, and looked forward to a quick decision by the Supreme Judicial Court.

“There’s an honest disagreement here, there is nothing personal about it,” he said.

Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat in his first term as Senate president, and DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat in his fourth term as speaker, sparred earlier in the session over another procedural issue. Rosenberg demanded changes in the Legislature’s joint committee structure, which the 40-member Senate claims heavily favors the 160-member House because it holds more seats on each committee.

That dispute also remains unresolved.

The court said in a statement Tuesday that it planned to offer an advisory opinion on the tax question, not a definitive ruling. It gave both sides until June 5 to submit legal briefs.

Rosenberg contends House lawmakers opened the door for the Senate to take up taxes through a little-noticed change in the state’s land conservation tax credit during House budget debate in April. That action, he says, converted the budget into a so-called “money bill” — which House and Senate counsel have defined as one that involves any kind of tax changes.

The budget is due on Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk by the start of the state’s new fiscal year on July 1. Rosenberg said even if the SJC does not rule immediately on the tax dispute, legislative negotiators should be able to iron out differences on the remainder of the spending plan in the coming weeks.

The Senate leader also pushed back against critics who argue that freezing the income tax rate would amount to a tax hike. He said the increase in the earned income tax credit, coupled with other personal exemptions, would be a progressive method of giving all Massachusetts residents some tax relief.

“The people at the lowest end get the biggest tax cut, the people in the middle get the next biggest and the people at the very top get a small one,” Rosenberg said.

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