By Matt Murphy

State House News Service

BOSTON -- More than a dozen conservative House Democrats voted on Wednesday to override Gov. Deval Patrick's veto of a $500 million tax bill, helping to usher in one of the largest tax increases since 2009.

While Republicans stood solid against the transportation funding bill -- even though it meant siding with Patrick, who wanted a larger tax bill -- nearly all of the Democrats who had voted against the tax bill throughout the turbulent process this spring and summer switched their votes at the end, worried the alternative could be worse.

Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, argued that sustaining Patrick's veto and going back to the drawing board opened up the possibility that the package of tax increases could increase to appease the governor.

"I had two bites at that apple and voted in opposition to it, but you get to a point where you have to move on," DiNatale said.

The Fitchburg Democrat said he hadn't given much thought to whether his vote would leave him vulnerable to a challenge from the right next year.

"If they want to take my body of work and look at how I voted, I'm probably one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. If you're talking to leadership, maybe too much so. So if they want to come after me with a candidate who's even more moderate, that's for the Republican Party to determine and I welcome any opposition. Take your best shot, folks. Good luck to you," DiNatale said.

The House voted 123-33 and the Senate 35-5 on Wednesday to override Patrick's veto of a bill that will raise the gas tax within a week by 3 cents a gallon, tack $1 onto the per-pack cigarette tax and apply the sales tax to certain software and computer design services. Patrick said he vetoed the bill because it did not raise enough revenue.

Among Democrats, only Reps. Dennis Rosa, D-Leominster, James Miceli, D-Wilmington, and Thomas Stanley, D-Waltham, voted consistently against the tax bill.

The Massachusetts Republican Party on Thursday singled out Democrats who changed their votes Wednesday, suggesting they could be acutely vulnerable next year when running for re-election for misleading constituents.

Imploring the House to sustain the veto and seek an alternative path for transportation funding, House Minority Leader Brad Jones during Wednesday's debate put the consequences in plain terms: "Your vote today on taxes is the one that matters most, not the one you took in April. So if you voted against it in April, don't think that covers you," Jones said.

Rep. George Peterson, the assistant minority leader from Grafton, lamented that if the Republicans had 54 members in the House instead of 30 they could block the tax increase from happening. "We're not there yet," he said.

Rep. Jonathan Zlotnik, a freshman Democrat from Gardner whose district includes the traditionally moderate communities of Ashburnham and Westminster, in 2012 ran ads promising not to support "any tax increase." Zlotnik, who voted against the tax hike last month, stressed that his vote to override the governor's veto does not contradict his campaign pledge.

Had Patrick's veto had been sustained, the governor would have come back with a steeper tax proposal, said Zlotnik.

"I think if you're being honest about it, he would get it," Zlotnik said. "The way I looked at it, by overriding the governor's veto, that stopped the bleeding. I still don't think it's a good idea. It's the lesser of two evils. That's the way I voted."

Zlotnik's opponent in his 2012 race, former Rep. Richard Bastien, said he was "disappointed" that it only took eight months for Zlotnik to vote in favor of a major tax bill.

"Trying to phrase yesterday's vote as somehow a heroic vote against the possibility of higher taxation is completely disingenuous," said Bastien.

Bastien, a Gardner Republican who spent one term on Beacon Hill before losing his seat, said since the vote he has already been encouraged to run again in 2014, but suggested it was "too soon to say" whether he would challenge Zlotnik.

"For them to say that restarting the process would result in higher taxes, I don't know anybody at the State House who's that clairvoyant," he said. 

On Thursday messages seeking comment for this story were left for all 13 representatives who switched their votes, but only three called back.

"I think this bill opens the state up for real challenges. We're going to be aggressively challenging not only these seats. This gives people a reason to run. We don't have to ask them. This infuriates them," said MassGOP Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes.

While votes in favor of higher taxes have often not come back to haunt Democrats in Massachusetts, the last major tax hike in 2009, raising the sales tax by 25 percent, preceded an election in which House Republicans were able to double their numbers. Patrick survived a re-election challenge in 2010.

Hughes dismissed the argument that killing the tax bill now could hypothetically lead to a higher tax increase in the future. "That's ridiculous. That's a false choice and it's not leadership. Republicans offered a tax-free alternative and their reasoning is absolutely flawed. I don't know if they got bullied by the speaker or truly want to raise taxes on their constituents," she said.

Gregoire said House Speaker Robert DeLeo made her no offers or promises in exchange for her vote to override the governor's veto. She speculated that many of colleagues might have been enticed to approve the transportation bill in order to restore local aid cuts slashed from the fiscal 2014 budget by the governor.

"To have things with the budget up in the air is irresponsible," Gregoire said. "I think I can explain it perfectly well. My vote yesterday was a vote against the governor's package."

City Editor Chris Camire contributed to this report.