It's always a little dangerous to start making claims as to what a politician really believes, as opposed to what they do or say. That said, and living a little dangerously, isn't it possible that, his support for the measure notwithstanding, Gov. Deval Patrick actually agrees with Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennnochi that the two-day sales-tax holiday approved by the Legislature is one dumb idea?
Taking the governor to task, Vennochi writes this morning that by supporting the tax holiday, which will cost the state at least $15 million in revenue, while also warning of tough budget times ahead, Patrick is "sending taxpayers a mixed message that simply doesn't add up." She trots out a list of big-ticket costs facing the state -- a $130 million gap in funding for health care reform, state help for the debt-ridden Turnpike Authority, and his own $1 billion education reform wish-list -- that should surely have given the governor pause before going along with what Vennochi calls a "feel-good, short-sighted" gimmick.
The math may not add up, but the political calculations may have. Patrick campaigned as a change agent who would level with voters and not be afraid to take on entrenched interests in the name of needed reforms. But fearful of getting pigeonholed as a tax-and-spend liberal, alienating key interest groups, or appearing to be out of the touch with the average Joe, Patrick has at various times steered clear of positions that seem to be more in keeping with what he campaigned on. Costly police details at construction sites? He has gone back and forth on whether this is an issue worth tackling. He has dismissed talk of a gas tax increase, which is probably necessary to deal with the enormous fiscal hole we're in to fund transportation infrastructure needs. And now, with the Legislature signing off on the sales tax holiday, he is not interested in stirring up populist outrage by telling residents that the state really can't afford to give up the 5 percent tax on the flat screen TV they have been eyeing. But the broad brushstrokes of his statements on taxation suggest Patrick might well share Vennochi's view of the tax holiday as an ill-conceived gimmick that ignores the broader fiscal reality. To anti-tax activists who say government should give people back "their" money, Patrick frequently reminds residents that it is also their broken bridges, their overcrowded schools, and their broken neighborhoods that tax dollars support.
All politicians make calculations about whether taking a particular stand is worth the political cost that may come with it. In some cases, it may not be worth drawing a line in sand over an issue if doing so might harm your effectiveness and ability to notch bigger victories. It becomes a judgment call as to whether the balance between conviction and political expedience has tilted too far. The summer sales tax holiday now seems baked into the state's fiscal-policy landscape. It was approved in each of the last four years, and Patrick wasn't about to be the guy to stand up and say let's now stop this. The kind of bandwagon effect he was facing is hard to resist. Still, it's worth remembering that in April, with gas prices heading toward $4 a gallon, it was Patrick's friend Barack Obama who declared a summertime federal gas-tax holiday, which his rivals, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, were eagerly supporting, to be a lot of economic hooey, a cheap play to the electorate that would only increase demand on gas supplies and deplete needed federal funds for road maintenance, while putting perhaps $25 into the pocket of the average driver.