Tarr and taxpayer sack

Minority Leader Bruce Tarr uses burlap moneybags to illustrate components of the state Senate’s nearly $50 billion budget proposal during debate on May 25. Tarr’s “taxpayer sack” was nearly empty, save for an IOU representing Democratic leadership’s promise of a future debate on tax relief.

BOSTON — After several long days of debate on a $50 billion state budget last May, Republican Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr walked across the floor of the Senate chamber and placed several large burlap sacks on the minority caucus’ table.

The bags were filled with rolled up pieces of paper, detailing increased spending and revenues from surplus money the state had amassed over the past year, to illustrate the GOP minority’s push for a package of tax cuts. One was labeled “taxpayers.”

“When we look in this budget, spending $50 billion, to see what’s in it for taxpayers, what do we find,” Tarr said, peering into one bag and unfolding a piece of paper with the word ‘ZERO’ on it. “Here we are. Zero!”

Tarr’s effort to include the tax cuts in the spending plan was ultimately rejected by the Democratic-controlled chamber, which approved the budget without the GOP’s proposals.

But the colorful debate was an example of the approach Tarr has often taken to help advance the GOP’s agenda in a deep-blue state increasingly run by Democrats.

Known for his “gift of the gab” oratorical speeches, witty retorts, and visual aides, Tarr has long been a fixture in state Senate debates on the budget and other key legislation. The 59-year-old Gloucester native has served in the chamber nearly 30 years, including six terms as minority leader.

But with the departure of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, Tarr takes on a new role: The top-ranking Republican on Beacon Hill.

In an interview, Tarr says he understands he faces a Herculean task getting Republican-backed initiatives across the finish line in a state where Democrats hold super-majorities in the House and Senate and are in control of the governor’s office as well as the posts of attorney general, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer.

“It’s definitely a challenging role — and a challenging place to be,” the veteran lawmaker said. “But it’s not a hopeless one, by any means.”

Building coalitions

As the head of the Senate’s three-member GOP caucus — which includes himself — he knows there’s little chance of majority votes for many of his proposals and he doesn’t have the numbers to block Democratic legislation.

“The fact is it’s been a long time since Republicans have been able to rely on the numbers to carry the day in the Legislature,” he said. “But for us, it’s not about numbers. It’s about the power of ideas, building coalitions, and understanding how to use the rules to move an issue forward.”

In remarks from the Senate floor last week, Tarr offered an olive branch by pledging to work with the Democratic majority to seek “common ground” on issues that will come before the chamber over the next two years.

“We will present principled arguments on this floor, and disagree, respectfully, and not through obstruction,” he told fellow lawmakers.

Tarr, a prolific bill filer, said he expects to begin filing proposals for the new two-year session both for his district and on behalf of the minority caucus. As of Thursday, he had filed 55, according to the Senate clerk’s office.

On the caucus’ agenda is the issue of affordability for residents amid record high inflation, while increasing the supply and distribution of energy in the state as consumers grapple with skyrocketing utility bills this winter. The state’s hiring crunch and the high cost of housing are other key items. and tax cuts.

Tarr said those are issues that Democratic leadership, as well as Democratic Gov. Maura Healey, have acknowledged need to be tackled by Beacon Hill.

“Many of the issues that are important to her are also important to us,” he said. “I’ve known the governor for several years, and I think we can find a way to move forward.

“My hope is that we can work in an environment where we can exchange ideas, even if we may disagree, and ultimately get to a place that makes sense for good public policy,” he added.

Looking ahead

To be sure, those relations got off to a rocky start this past week when Healey met Monday with Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, for the first time, and Tarr and House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, weren’t invited.

Their absence was notable, given that the minority leaders had participated in the regular “leadership meetings” under Baker’s tenure as governor.

Tarr said the snub was “disappointing” but is optimistic that Republican leaders will be invited to participate in future leadership meetings.

“Those Monday afternoon meetings have been one of the hallmarks of our democracy in Massachusetts, with everyone having a seat at the table to share ideas and our understanding of the issues facing the state,” Tarr said. “I hope that we don’t lose that in the days ahead.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com.

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