JAY KAUFMAN, THE former state rep from Lexington, remembers a conversation he had with House Speaker Robert DeLeo the last time the Legislature considered raising taxes to pay for transportation.
It was 2013, the morning before the House vote on a bill that would raise the gas tax 3 cents, index that tax to inflation (later rescinded by voters), jack up tobacco taxes, and impose a tax (later jettisoned by lawmakers) on some computer software services.
Kaufman, who was the chair of the Revenue Committee, said he didn’t think that tax package would provide enough new revenue to meet the transportation system’s needs. But he said DeLeo told him that if he voted against the bill he would lose his chairmanship of the Revenue Committee.
“He made it very clear to me that my options were to vote for it or not be part of any conversation going forward,” Kaufman said. “He said, ‘If you can’t vote for this, I can’t have you as part of my team.’”
Kaufman wanted to remain in control of the Revenue Committee to ultimately usher in a progressive system of income taxation in the state, so he says he went along with the speaker’s request. But now, after not seeking reelection last year and with another transportation revenue bill poised to come up for consideration, Kaufman decided to speak out on the Codcast.
The podcast interview was posted Sunday evening, and DeLeo’s office responded Monday morning with a comment taking strong exception to Kaufman’s account.
“Representative Kaufman’s statement is flat-out false. He is a liar,” DeLeo said in a statement. “The events described never happened, and it is disappointing that he would make unfounded accusations, six years later, in an attempt to disparage the House. It is no coincidence that this interview comes at a time when this former representative seeks to advance his private business interests.”
In 2013, Kaufman said, DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray presented the broad outlines of the tax bill the chambers would consider instead of letting those outlines form on their own through the committee process and floor debate.
“I don’t think that’s the way democracy is designed,” Kaufman said. “I’m much more of a bottoms-up than tops-down kind of person when it comes to thinking how we deal with matters in our family and in our democracy.”
DeLeo didn’t invent the House’s top-down leadership style, according to Kaufman. The prior two speakers, Sal DiMasi and Tom Finneran, also presided in that manner over the past two-plus decades.
Now the vast majority of House members have not served with anyone else as speaker and “don’t really know how a speaker can preside as first among equals,” said Kaufman, who acknowledged that the members themselves share the blame (or credit) for the speaker’s approach, because they re-elected him every two years.
“I was complicit, to be perfectly clear,” Kaufman said.
In the House, members of DeLeo’s inner circle are strongly discouraged from airing criticisms publicly, even when they disagree, said Kaufman, who said members in high positions who do go to the press with their grievances are “resented” and viewed as unprofessional.
Despite his differences with the speaker, Kaufman said he thinks DeLeo is a “wonderful person” and would do better if he tried to open things up.
“I think he’d be happier and produce a better work product if his circle of friends was broader than it is,” Kaufman said.
There are some indications that DeLeo is incorporating more viewpoints into the House’s deliberation on transportation revenues this year. DeLeo has tasked three committee chairmen –Aaron Michlewitz of House Ways and Means, William Straus of Transportation, and Mark Cusack of Revenue – with working on the proposal. The speaker has also solicited input from the business community.
In his statement, DeLeo also criticized CommonWealth for posting the podcast conversation with Kaufman. “It’s also important to note that CommonWealth’s editorial management did not vet or review this content before publishing it,” he said.