Who doesn’t love a surprise party? Maybe House Speaker Ron Mariano, who might have had his fill the past year.

Remember last July when then-Gov. Charlie Baker rocked Mariano with the tax rebate news? The speaker took heat from his right for even speculating about a quickie repeal of the rebate law, then from his left for not doing it.

And it had to be smart when Mariano, not unreasonably wary of how long the recent gusher of revenue would last, deep-sixed the tax breaks, only to find himself out on a limb when both Gov. Maura Healey and Senate President Karen Spilka insisted the cuts could and should still be made.

Sure enough, revenue flow has been inconsistent, and both Mariano and Healey have said business competitiveness is a big issue. So no wonder the speaker told us in an interview he was “a little bit” surprised last month when Spilka and the Senate rolled out a $590 million tax-cut bill – $152 million less than Gov. Healey’s plan and a whopping $510 million below the House’s number.

More limb time for the gentleman from Quincy.

Mariano offered muted descriptions of how it had been “hard to get a read” on where the Senate was headed on the issue, and referred to their tax-cut squabble last summer as “some odd negotiations.” Hard not to wonder if the apparently poor relationship between Mariano and Spilka – on display in the form of communication breakdowns, committee squabbling, and icy body language during their rare joint appearances that evokes the days of Ed King and Tom O’Neill – is a factor.

“I don’t think it’s poor,” says Mariano. “I don’t think there’s an issue there.” But there will be one if the conference committee can’t find a deal on the House’s proposed short-term capital gains tax cut (from 12% to 5% – in line with neighboring states – over two years). The Senate discarded that like a sour carton of milk you discover after a long vacation. Mariano is quick to note that Healey’s on his side, although it’s unclear if she’d go to the mat for it.

The Speaker was diplomatic about his differences with Spilka, less so on the topic of Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s effort to audit the Legislature. That was her marquee campaign promise, but the fact she’s intent on fulfilling it seems to have come as another surprise. “I don’t accept the notion that there’s a separate entity of government that she has the authority to audit,” says Mariano. “There is a real question of separation of powers.”

DiZoglio says that’s a “bogus” argument, that audits of the Legislature have occurred in the past. She’s threatening to take the dispute to court, and Mariano says go ahead, make my day: “She’s free to do whatever she wants, but there are a lot of other programs we’d rather spend money on.”

Whatever happened to the days when relationships with the auditor’s office were formed over lunch in Joe DeNucci’s office dining room, not in court? Beacon Hill sure has changed, and Mariano’s considerable political skills developed over 30 years in the building are being tested.

He was a key player on Romneycare and auto insurance reform, and shepherded the House through the pandemic. But a defining moment of Mariano’s speakership is at hand. If a capital-gains cut is necessary to preserve our economic competitiveness, as he claimed, it’s showtime.

Total failure would come as an unpleasant surprise.

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Jon Keller has been reporting and commenting on local politics since 1978. A graduate of Brandeis University, he worked in radio as a producer and talk-show host before moving into print journalism at The Tab newspapers and the Boston Phoenix. Freelance credits include the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Boston Magazine, the New Republic and the Washington Post. Since 1991 his "Keller At Large" commentaries and interviews have been a fixture on Boston TV, first on WLVI-TV and, since 2005, on WBZ-TV. He is a 12-time Emmy Award winner for political reporting and commentary. He began his Massterlist column in March 2020.