Much-Debated Transportation Bill Likely To Be Enacted This Week

BOSTON — This week, a final version of the much-debated transportation finance bill is likely to be enacted — if lawmakers succeed in overriding a veto from Gov. Deval Patrick.

The House plans to vote on Wednesday, followed by the Senate on Thursday, and leaders in both chambers say they’re confident they have the votes to override the veto.

Patrick vetoed the bill Friday after lawmakers rejected his amendment to increase the state gasoline tax to compensate for tolls scheduled to come down on the turnpike in 2017.

While the new legislation makes major new investments in the state’s roads, bridges and public transit, it is a far cry from the ambitious plan Patrick laid out in January.

Looking Back At Patrick’s Original Plan

When Patrick delivered his State of the Commonwealth address in January, he dropped a bombshell.

“My budget will propose that we increase the income tax by 1 percentage point to 6.25 percent,” he said in his speech. “To make that increase fair to all, according to their ability to pay, I will propose that we double the personal exemptions for every taxpayer, and eliminate a number of itemized deductions.”

The governor’s ambitious tax reform plan would have expanded taxes and fees by nearly $2 billion over time, he told a very surprised audience of lawmakers (and lobbyists). That would allow massive new investments in transportation, and in education, too.

“That changed the entire debate and frankly undercut his own strategy and the strategy of all others who were going to focus on transportation,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Widmer and many other players say that going into 2013, they expected transportation spending would be front and center. There’d been studies, polls, a statewide public hearing tour by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray and the governor all had signaled that this was the year to revive the state’s ailing transit systems.

But suddenly Patrick had changed the focus.

Richard Dimino is president of A Better City, a business-backed group in Boston that, among other things, advocates for transportation investment.

“We thought that the idea of crowding the field and making this the year of transportation, education and a wide range of tax increases might limit the outcome for transportation,” Cimino said. “Sadly to say, that’s kind of what happened.”

Still, by late winter, it was clear the Legislature would jettison most of the governor’s grand vision, narrow the debate to transportation, and spend what Dimino says is real money on it. Here’s DeLeo in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in late March:

I believe it should be far more narrow in scope, and of a significantly smaller size. We seek to fund the priorities we need to to enhance the economy, without creating any collateral damage.

So, now legislative leaders are boosting funding for public higher education and a few other initiatives. But most new revenues, that’s for transportation. They’ve settled on a modest 3 cent gas tax hike, coupled with new business and tobacco taxes, and new revenues provided by MassDOT. Altogether, it’s about $650 million a year — half the new transportation spending Patrick had wanted.

The Political Calculus

Could lawmakers go further? In-depth polls show that a strong majority of the public would support increasing gas taxes at least, even more, as long as it goes to roads and bridges. Even Widmer says lawmakers could raise more and survive the next election.

“I frankly don’t understand why they couldn’t go to 8 or 9 cents, 10 cents,” he said. “I don’t think that would change the political equation one bit.”

As the end-game plays out, some lawmakers say Patrick’s attempts to push them to a higher revenue number have been not helpful. Policy surprises, back-and-forth veto threats and pressure moves such as withholding aid to municipalities, they say, have backfired.

“He didn’t have the courtesy to tell us he was doing that,” said Democratic Rep. Denise Provost, of Somerville, who voted against her powerful leaders on the House’s first version of the transportation package, after Patrick threatened a veto. But speaking just before going into a meeting with the governor last week, she was clearly frustrated.

“The governor has tended to announce his decisions after he’s made them,” she said. “And that doesn’t come down well, especially [when] some of us have at times stuck our necks out or voted against our own leadership.”

Not this time. When the latest version of the transportation finance bill came to the House floor — under a new veto threat — Provost stuck with her leaders and voted for the bill. As did almost every other House Democrat, virtually guaranteeing an override of a Patrick veto.

Lawmakers have good reason to take it slow, Dimino says. It’s one thing to be a popular governor in his last term, with policy polls behind him, Dimino says, and another to be a lawmaker facing re-election.

“I do think there’s a different calculus relative to how elected officials look at their constituencies and how they look at their relationship to the voting public, versus surveys and advocacy groups, I do think that’s very real,” he said.

Transportation advocates are cheering for the hundreds of millions of new dollars that will be invested. But they also say the Legislature’s going only part-way to addressing the need.

No one expects lawmakers to raise taxes next year, an election year, but the advocates are already gearing up to renew the conversation about transportation and taxes after that.

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  • pauly2468

    It’s ok to throw Big Dig debt overuns onto the MBTA(Romney)It;s ok to use taxpayers money to subsidiize private sector activities,farmers crop insurance,extreme early pensions,etc,etc,but not a few more cents on a gas tax for necessary transit allocations.
    We are so far behind other developed countries on the state of our public transit.The need for public transit is growing.We cannot settle for gridlock and further climate disasters(which are subsidized by taxpayers.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      perhaps you should increase the price of public transit if it cannot pay for itself. why should someone who never uses public transportation pay for it? why should someone in the Berkshires be subsidizing a subway in boston? perhaps if we raised the public transit rates we could use it to lower the gas tax. now that I could get behind

      • Johan Corby

        “why should someone who never uses public transportation pay for it? ”

        That’s not how taxes work. I don’t have kids in school, but I pay taxes to support schools. I don’t own a boat, but I don’t get to withhold tax money that goes toward maintaining nautical navigational infrastructure. But in this particular case it keep cars off the road lessening traffic and need for frequent repair. It lets people get to work to be productive workers (and taxpayers) in the economy. It gets tourists to attractions and businesses, further stimulating the economy. It reduces emission which have long term effects on health.

        The same tax money that would fund the MBTA would pay for infrastructure out in W. Mass. as well. Better roads means better transport of good and people.

        Just because you personally don’t use something doesn’t mean you don’t get a second (or even third-hand) benefit from it.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          its not a general tax. its a tax aimed at one group of people to benefit another. people in western mass should not have to pay more to get to work and everywhere else so people in boston can save money. that’s not fair.
          hypothetically would it be fair to raise boston T fairs in order to build roads in western MA? what about raising T rates to provide a gas subsidy for drivers?

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    who is this popular governor they refer to?
    are they taking away the toll takers?

  • X-Ray

    Why do we need higher taxes now to compensate for a planned lowering of tolls four years from now? One assumes there are other reasons just to institute new taxes. Taxachusetts earns its nickname.

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