BOSTON House lawmakers are prepared to meet Gov. Deval Patrick part of the way in the governor’s request for $1.9 billion in new revenue for transportation and education, according to House Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation William Straus.
With an oversight hearing and a rally scheduled for Tuesday, the contours of the Legislature’s proposal could be more apparent by the end of the day, which will feature a direct and public discussion of the transportation system and its financing between key lawmakers and Patrick administration officials.
Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, said House Speaker Robert DeLeo spoke for many lawmakers when he called for passage last week of a more limited revenue proposal, which might fund transportation but not the education component of Patrick’s plan.
“Reflecting now after two months since the governor announced his package, the speaker has articulated what I would call a developing consensus among House members as to the extent and scope of a tax package that would be related to maintaining and improving and expanding our transportation system,” Straus told the News Service. “It’s simply a question of not what we would like to have happen, but what can we actually accomplish, recognizing the ability of the public to support this.”
DeLeo also expressed the need to search for more cost savings within the transportation system, an aim that House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading) is hoping has a bigger emphasis in transportation financing legislation.
“The governor’s proposing things that we like,” Jones told the News Service, referring to the goal of moving employees off a debt-funded budget onto the operating budget, and funding the regional transit authorities at the beginning of the year rather than reimbursing them at the end of the year. However, Jones said there will be “at best, a very, very limited appetite” for new revenues among Republicans, especially without further reforms to laws that limit the privatization of government services and require the use of labor on construction projects.
Patrick, who has made the call for more revenues a theme of nearly every recent speech, plans to flex his political muscles on Tuesday. Patrick on Sunday morning issued an email through his Deval Patrick Committee urging supporters to join a rally held by The Campaign for Our Communities, a group supporting the call for higher taxes to pay for education and transportation.
Transportation Secretary Richard Davey is also scheduled to testify Tuesday at a hearing on the administration’s “The Way Forward” transportation plan held by the Joint Committee on Transportation. The Mass Senior Action Council said nearly 200 of its members will attend the events.
In a speech last Thursday to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, DeLeo said the House would be developing some revenue increase for transportation, though less than the $1 billion Patrick says is needed and perhaps without the $900 million for spending on education.
“Although I agree with the magnitude of the problem being in the area of a billion dollars a year, I think it’s fair to say that the scope of what we can do is substantially less than that, but as I say, still hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” Straus told the News Service last week. He said that the amount would be suitable to fund public transit and road and bridgework throughout the state, while also ending the practice of funding operations salaries on the state’s “credit card.”
The House’s method of raising funds will diverge from Patrick’s $1.9 billion proposal to increase the income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent, and eliminate 44 personal income tax breaks and $499 million in corporate tax changes, including a limit on the amount of film tax credits. Patrick’s plan would also lower the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent, which the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates would cost the state $1.37 billion per year.
“We’re looking at – meaning Ways and Means is actively involved as well – things other than the income tax that relate to that threshold that you’ve quoted me before as saying related to either the use or benefit of transportation,” Straus said. “That can come in a number of categories. It could include the existing methods, which is Registry [of Motor Vehicles], gas tax, fares, and some other ones that relate to how transportation benefits people in Massachusetts.”
A group of 57 economists, almost exclusively from colleges and universities in Massachusetts, signed onto a statement endorsing Patrick’s proposed investments in education and transportation and the means of funding them, through the income tax.
“As economists, we believe that these investments are critical to improving the long-term economic strength of our state,” read part of the statement, which former Patrick administration officials now working at Northwind Strategies sent out Monday morning. “We also realize that these goals cannot be attained without additional state revenue. As such, we support increasing personal income tax revenue because it is the most equitable and effective way to raise the sizeable funds needed.”
For both Straus and the Transportation Committee’s Senate chairman, Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn), the goal is a plan that is achievable.
“The important thing that we need to do is build a consensus for something we can pass together, so the governor has moved the discussion forward with both his ‘Way Forward’ and his proposal for how to pay for it, but I think that the Legislature now has an opportunity to weigh in and discuss how we can work together to find a way forward,” McGee said.
Jones is predicting that the House leadership’s plan is substantially different from Patrick’s, so Republicans have not worked on drafting amendments to the governor’s proposal, and will wait to see the revised plan.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) said that his caucus is drafting reforms that will be offered up, either as legislation or amendments, as a counterweight to the revenue proposal.
“If revenue is going to be on the table, then reform is going to be on the table, one way or the other,” Tarr told the News Service. He said, “You can count on them being part of the equation,” and said, “I think there’s a real opportunity here for some common ground.”
Tarr said, “I think it would be folly to pour precious taxpayer dollars into a system that doesn’t use them efficiently.”
Straus said that a lower amount of new revenue would still be able to accomplish expansion goals – which Patrick has said is only 20 percent of his proposal – including the South Coast Rail, which would bring the commuter rail to Straus’s district, with a final stop in New Bedford, and which Patrick has given a $1.8 billion price-tag – the Green Line Extension to Medford, through Somerville, and the expansion of South Station’s commuter rail station.
Other projects included in “The Way Forward,” such as a rail link between Pittsfield and New York City are so far off that the expensive cost of construction do not yet need to be calculated into the 10-year capital plan because it is “probably a decade away in the capital needs of the Commonwealth,” according to Straus.
McGee said that transportation has not been a priority in the past, but it should be a priority even after consensus is reached this year.
“I think it’s something we missed the boat on, and every state has. You can’t do it every 15 years where you get to a point where we’re facing the challenges we face in the system right now,” McGee said. “It’s something that should be a priority – one of our priorities – year to year.”