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Massachusetts House Rejects Change to Transportation Bill

Boston — Lawmakers and Gov. Deval Patrick remained sharply at odds over a transportation bill after the House on Wednesday rejected a change the governor had demanded be made to the measure that raises taxes to improve the state’s aging and debt-ridden transportation system.

The House instead voted 121-31 for a substitute amendment that made technical corrections to the bill but did not include Patrick’s call to automatically allow for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax if tolls on the western portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike are removed as scheduled in 2017.

The Senate is also expected to turn down the governor’s amendment when it meets on Thursday.

The margin of the House vote, if it held up, would be well above the two-thirds needed to override a veto that Patrick has promised if the bill returns to his desk unchanged by lawmakers.

The bill that promises $800 million in new revenues for transportation by 2018 seeks to jumpstart stalled infrastructure improvements such as the extension of commuter rail to the state’s South Coast. It would also eliminate the MBTA’s projected budget shortfall and head off the need for another round of fare hikes or service cuts on the Boston-area transit system.

The measure would raise the state’s gasoline tax by 3 cents to 24 cents a gallon, hike the cigarette tax by $1, and impose the state’s sales tax on computer and software services.

But Patrick contends the bill would not, in fact, deliver the $800 million because it does not account for the loss of revenue that would occur if the tolls west of Interstate 95 come down. The governor’s amendment would allow for a further increase in the gas tax if the tolls go away.

Legislative leaders say the amendment is unnecessary and that any future revenue shortfalls can be dealt with as needed.

“I commend the strong vote of members of the House for a carefully balanced plan that provides adequate funding to our transportation needs while limiting the burden on the businesses and families of Massachusetts,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo said after Wednesday’s vote.

The substitute amendment approved by lawmakers made technical changes including setting the date of the gasoline tax increase at seven days from the date the law goes into effect. That would avoid the need to impose the tax retroactive to July 1, the date that was originally set in the bill.

The governor in recent days had acknowledged that the chances of his amendment succeeding in the Legislature were slim, but he has also said he would not back down on his veto threat.

Jesse Mermell, a spokeswoman for Patrick, said the governor is disappointed by the House’s action, but not surprised. She said the one issue remains unresolved: what to do about revenue that will be lost if and when the Turnpike tolls come down.

“The options are to deal with this now, or to deal with this later,” Mermell said in a statement. “The governor believes we should deal with this now. We lost that point in the House today. We will try tomorrow in the Senate.”

Patrick, DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray — all Democrats — have strongly denied that the ongoing dispute has created a rift in relations between the executive and legislative branches.

Patrick and DeLeo were seen chatting amiably earlier Wednesday when the governor entered the House chamber to administer the oath of office to newly-elected state Rep. Jay Livingstone, D-Boston.

On Friday, Patrick vetoed $240 million in transportation funds and $177 million in local aid to cities and towns from the state budget, saying the tax increases in the yet-to-be-finalized transportation bill were needed to balance the $34 billion spending plan. Lawmakers are expected to consider those vetoes next week.

The governor, ironically, may be able to count on Republicans as he tries to round up support for sustaining his expected veto of the transportation bill.

“He wants to veto the bill because it doesn’t raise enough taxes, and I’m going to vote to sustain the veto because I don’t want to raise taxes at all,” said Rep. Brad Jones, R-North Reading, the House minority leader.

Republicans, who are outnumbered more than 4-1 by Democrats in the House, argue that transportation improvements can be made without relying on tax increases.