BOSTON (State House News Service) – While their caucuses wield newfound power over the fate of a multibillion-dollar spending and tax relief bill, top Republicans in the House and Senate are wary of digging out an entrenched position on what the proposal must include and exclude.

Massachusetts lawmakers are in uncharted waters trying to resuscitate the more than $4 billion economic development bill they unanimously approved but never finalized this summer while apparently still grappling with the impact of paying out nearly $3 billion in mandatory tax refunds.

Democrats in charge of the negotiations will need to get every single lawmaker on board to revive the bill or else they risk triggering its final collapse as the two-year term draws to a close. And so far, neither House Minority Leader Brad Jones nor Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr want to play hardball.

In an interview on Wednesday, Jones said he views permanent tax breaks, including an overhaul to the estate tax and expanded credits for renters, seniors and Bay Staters with dependents, as one of the most critical features of the bills, which cleared the branches in differing forms.

But he did not want to declare those tax changes to be an absolute requirement in a revised spending package.

“Like any piece of legislation, I’d like to see what the final thing is. I personally want some tax stuff. I would want at least some tax initiatives in there,” Jones said. “But I think to kind of say look, if tax cuts aren’t in there, for anybody to say I’m going to hold it up if they’re not in there — even though everything in there I’m okay with, it’s just not enough that I’m okay with — I just think that’s dangerous. I think that’s irresponsible.”

“I’m not going to go draw a line in the sand because I think sometimes if you draw a line in the sand, you just kind of create this dynamic where people then want to test that,” he added a few minutes later. “I’d like to see what the final product is, what the resolution is. That being said, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to weigh in and say, ‘Hey, this is really important, I think it should be in here.'”

Tarr, meanwhile, said it would be “difficult to say anything is a dealbreaker because everything is subject to negotiation.”

“I wouldn’t want to taint the negotiations by laying something out as a dealbreaker at this juncture,” he told the News Service. “What I would say is it would be very difficult for us to allow anything to move forward that didn’t have the substantial tax relief measures agreed to in one form or another by the House and the Senate.”

Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers, which limits the necessity of working across the aisle with Republicans. But because Democrats punted their economic development and tax relief bill this summer when they were blindsided by mandatory tax credits owed under a law known as Chapter 62F, Republicans — and the progressives on the left who sometimes buck party bosses — gained additional sway over the final product.

Lawmakers plan to meet only in informal sessions through the end of the term, meaning any single objection can halt a bill’s advancement.

Top Democrats have not given any indication they will try to suspend their own rules to reconvene in formal sessions. Jones said such a step would make him “very, very nervous,” warning that lawmakers might succumb to scope creep and start pursuing other priorities during a likely lame-duck stretch.

When it comes to possible additions that Jones or other Republicans might not like, he said turning to Gov. Charlie Baker as a “backstop” might be a better approach than halting the entire bill.

Baker would get line-item veto authority to surgically nix any section of a spending bill, and because lawmakers plan only informal sessions, Democrats would be unable to take the roll call votes they need to override the Republican governor’s objection.

“If there’s something in there — there’s a poison pill, there’s a stinker in there — I’m fortunate that we have the backstop of the governor that if there’s something I think is bad, I’m hoping that he’s going to think it’s bad, too,” Jones said.

He pointed to potential changes to the mandatory tax cap law known as Chapter 62F as an example of such a proposal. A group of progressive Democrats filed a bill Wednesday trying to impose a $6,500 limit on the amount any single taxpayer can receive in the refunds set to begin flowing next month.

While legislative leaders have signaled they prefer not to consider changes to the distribution formula until at least the next two-year session, they have described the mandatory relief as an unexpected burden that forced them to rethink their spending calculus amid sharp inflation and the chances of a looming recession.

Jones urged his Democrat colleagues to “embrace” the nearly $3 billion state government will return to taxpayers instead of questioning how to “avoid” the refunds.

“We are at a point where we can have the biggest rainy day fund, the biggest state budget, we can be doing all of these things,” he said.

“Pretty Status Quo” Negotiations

Despite the unusual circumstances, Jones said the approach legislative leaders have taken to figuring out a plan has so far been “pretty status quo,” consisting of talks between the two chairs of the conference committee negotiating the bill, the speaker’s office and the Senate president’s office.

The North Reading Republican said he has had “a couple of conversations” with top Democrats about the legislation, describing them more as status updates than formal proposals for a path forward. Bills often stagnate on Beacon Hill while House and Senate Democrats struggle to find agreement between themselves.

“I’m not exactly sure what the hang-up is,” Jones said.

Tarr suggested outside policy elements either branch wove into the bill, such as a Senate addition eliminating a waiting period for state workers to access health insurance, could pose “points of contention.”

The easiest option, he said, might be to set aside most policy riders and advance a bill featuring only appropriations and tax breaks.

Tarr added that he and Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Michael Rodrigues, one of the two co-chairs on the conference committee, “have good lines of communication” about the progress of negotiations.

“But obviously finding the chemistry of consensus here is most challenging for us to do,” Tarr, of Gloucester, said. “I’m confident we still can find that chemistry if we focus on the basics of the two bills.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, who is leading the talks alongside Rodrigues, said last week they are still trying to decide “what we can and can’t afford” alongside the cost of Chapter 62F refunds.

“It goes back to the fact that you take the $3 billion out of the discussion point, it changes the equation, the math that we were dealing with. We have to account for that,” he said.

That’s not an outlook universally shared. Baker estimates lawmakers would still have $1.5 billion of last year’s budget surplus to deploy, enough to cover the surplus spending in the original economic development bill, and Tarr said he does not think lawmakers need to view the combined one-time rebate checks and permanent tax breaks they already approved as “an either/or situation.”

“The governor made it clear when he filed the closeout supp that he was leaving enough money available not only to accommodate Chapter 62F but also to fund all the provisions of the tax relief that were in the economic development bill and the spending that was in the economic development bill,” Tarr said. “I would be very hesitant to say one needs to be subordinate to the other at this point. The House and Senate agreed to all of them. I don’t see why now we would need to omit some of them moving forward.”

Another Piece of Unfinished Business

Jones said Democrats set themselves up for failure by waiting too long to craft and advance the original economic development and tax relief bills, adding that the decision to toss it aside at the end of formal lawmaking sessions “doesn’t help our grade.”

And he also said he expects action on the revival to come after lawmakers resolve the fiscal year 2022 closeout budget, an annual autumnal obligation that allows the state government to close the books on the most recent spending cycle.

Baker filed that spending bill on Aug. 31, and Comptroller William McNamara had hoped lawmakers would finish it by the end of September to give him a full month to meet his own Oct. 31 reporting deadline.

Democrats blew past the comptroller’s target and have given no indication of impending action, a delay that might be frustrating for McNamara but not unprecedented — in 2019, the Legislature waited until Dec. 11 to wrap up its budgeting work.

“The way we work around here is that whatever the latest we’ve done something becomes the new ‘Okay, as long as we get it done by then, we’ll be okay,'” Jones said.

In Jones’s mind, getting both the closeout budget bill and the economic development bill done by the Nov. 8 election would be “really, really tough.” Combining their provisions into one megapackage “raises red flags,” he said, because the budget bill has not yet gone through either branch and therefore should be subject to amendment, while the final compromise economic development bill would not be up for changes once it emerges from conference committee negotiations.

Holding the spending and tax relief bill until after Election Day could deny voters a chance to voice their frustration — or appreciation — with the final measure at the ballot box, but Jones said he does not view that as much of a factor.

“I’ve got to be honest: I’m not sure how much the average voter is focused on an eco dev bill. They may be focused on certain pieces of it,” he said. “I have certain constituents who are very interested in are we ever going to do something on estate tax reform. I have senior citizens who are tough financially, so yes, they’d like to see the circuit breaker changed. Given the likelihood that all of those wouldn’t take effect until, I’m going to guess (Jan. 1, 2023) — because I don’t think you could probably go back at this point and say we’ll make it retroactive — I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”

Count Tarr among those hoping for more prompt action.

“I’d certainly like to see it done before then and I think it can be done before then,” he said.