BOSTON Facing pressure to act quickly in light of the potential for another round of steep MBTA fare hikes, House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the News Service Wednesday that he prefers legislating transportation financing separate from the full state budget.
Gov. Deval Patrick included funding mechanisms to inject $1 billion into the state’s transportation system in his $34.8 billion budget, where an increase in the income tax coupled with a sales tax decrease drives the governor’s spending plan.
DeLeo, who has declared himself open-minded but wary of Patrick’s tax and spending plans, said the logistics for considering transportation financing have not yet been set, but he favors dealing with it separate from the annual budget.
“At this time I’m not sure. I think there’s a possibility that’s exactly what will happen. I believe that may give as a better opportunity — my thoughts right now — to debate it as a separate piece, as opposed to being part of the budget. I’d like to see us go that way, but right now I’m really not certain,” DeLeo told the News Service.
The $1 billion in additional transportation funds sought by Patrick would allow for repairs, an end to the practice of putting highway workers’ salaries on the state “credit card” and an expansion of train service out to Springfield, New Bedford and Cape Cod.
With MBTA officials cautioning Tuesday that it might take a 33 percent fare hike to address its near-term budget problems, the House is under pressure to act soon on transportation financing, which DeLeo flagged as a pressing issue more than two months ago, when the new two-year session opened.
If DeLeo opts to consider the transportation separately, he said it would come up ahead of the planned April 10 presentation of the House’s version of the annual budget.
“It would have to be sometime about the beginning of April, because once we get involved with a budget and amendments and whatnot, then — it will probably have to be sometime in the first two weeks in April,” DeLeo said.
Calling for reforms that both seek out “efficiencies” and “reflect a sense of regional equity,” DeLeo in January did not specifically endorse raising taxes to pay for improvements in the system, but tied the health of the system to the state’s economic performance and said, “We will have to be prepared to make investments.”
“I do not accept that safety must be sacrificed for the sake of fiscal solvency, and I will not accept any proposal that does not provide our citizens with the assurance that their transportation infrastructure will be safe and will be state-of-the-art,” DeLeo said in January.
A report commissioned by two business groups and released on Wednesday identified numerous areas where state transportation agencies can improve performance, while concluding that the transportation system needs new revenues.
DeLeo’s point man on transportation, Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), told the News Service last month that funding transportation with user fees would be a better guarantee that the funding stream would remain in place than an income tax – which combined with the closure of tax incentives provides the bulk of the new revenues Patrick sees as critical to education and transportation investments.
“The financing method for transportation works best when there’s a connection or a nexus to the users or those who benefit from the transportation system,” said Straus, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee.
Straus also suggested last month that legislative leaders might carve transportation funding out of Patrick’s budget and consider it as part of a transportation financing bill.
Transportation activists, who have been lobbying House members to back new revenues for transportation, believe DeLeo will address the issue this week.
An email Tuesday from a transportation advocate suggested that DeLeo would “preview” his transportation funding plan at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce speech on Thursday morning.
“Important transportation funding decisions will be made in the next day or two as Speaker DeLeo is scheduled to address the Chambers on Thursday morning at which time he is expected to give a preview of his plan to fund transportation,” Dan Wilson, executive director of MoveMass, wrote in a mass email.
When asked about the email, DeLeo’s spokesman said the House leaders would “touch on some of the major issues in discussion.”
A spokeswoman for Patrick did not respond to a request for comment on DeLeo’s inclination to break the transportation funding away from the full budget. While he has aggressively pushed lawmakers to support new transportation revenues, Patrick has said he is not “wed” to the revenue-raising proposal he made.
In an interview that aired on WCVB over the weekend, DeLeo said he had expected Patrick to raise the income tax less than the full point that Patrick included in the budget. On Wednesday, DeLeo said Patrick had not been specific about his plan before he unveiled it in his State of the State address in January.
“He had mentioned, sort of almost in passing, about what he was thinking about in terms of the budget,” DeLeo told the News Service. “He sort of mentioned the income tax at the time, at which time I immediately told him I thought that might be a very difficult thing to sell, but I respected his priorities in trying to get something done. But I got the impression he was more talking about like a slight increase, maybe .25 to .50. So when he made the speech and he talked about a full point, I was taken by surprise, admittedly.”
DeLeo said Patrick had not mentioned any figures to him when discussing an income tax and on Wednesday, Patrick told reporters he hadn’t given DeLeo any reason to think he would raise the income tax to a certain rate lower than the 6.25 percent Patrick included in his budget.
“There’s going to be a negotiation as we go forward,” Patrick said. He said “the most important thing” is that there is agreement that a “21st century transportation and education system is worthy, and there’s more than one way to accomplish that goal.”
Patrick also said that he had been speaking directly with lawmakers about his proposal.
“Sure I’ve been talking to them, regularly,” Patrick said. He said he has been speaking to legislators as “individuals, small groups, whenever I have the opportunity.”