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House Sales Tax Vote Would Funnel $295 Million To Transportation

By Meghna Chakrabarti (The Third Rail)

The House has passed a statewide sales tax increase, boosting the rate from five to 6.25 percent. House leaders say they expect to raise an additional $900 million in revenue, although economists call that claim a wonderful example of Beacon Hill optimism that depends on people spending as in days of old.

Still, the plan sets aside $295 million for transportation. Experts believe the move is both good and bad for the state's ailing roads, bridges, and public transit.

On the one hand, it's money. On the other hand, it's not enough.

Not nearly enough, especially for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (currently running a $100 million operating deficit, and $2.2 billion in debt) and for the MBTA (currently at a $165 million operating deficit, and $8 billion in debt).

The House plan also falls short of the money earmarked for transportation under Governor Deval Patrick's proposed gas tax increase. That plan would have raised the gas tax by 19-cents per gallon. Patrick administration officials say an estimated $25 million would have been generated per penny increase. Overall, the Patrick plan would have raised $475 million for transportation.

But, with all efforts now on the sales tax, the Patrick gas tax plan has stalled. And so have the Governor's other targeted tax efforts.

"We decided to go a different way," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said to the Boston Globe. "We decided we didn't want a 19 cent gas tax [increase]. We decided we didn't want a sugar tax. We decided we didn't want an alcohol tax. We decided that the best and most fiscally prudent way to go was the sales tax we proposed."

Fiscally prudent, and politically prudent. But perhaps not prudent policy, especially for a transportation system that needs a guaranteed source of long term funding, according to several transportation experts.

They tell WBUR that legislators likely did not relish a long series of floor fights over individual tax proposals. Similarly, they may not have enjoyed the idea of their legislative records containing numerous votes for tax increases. Why vote for several different taxes, when you can simply vote 'yes' for one?

But even that - as the full-scale fisticuffs already unfolding over the sales tax vote prove - seems hard enough on Beacon Hill.

This program aired on April 29, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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