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When lawmakers increased the state gas tax by 3 cents a gallon last year, it was the first time in 21 years that the rate had changed. In the meantime, while the rate stayed the same, the costs of maintaining the state's roads, bridges and public transit skyrocketed.
To prevent that from happening again, lawmakers passed a measure to automatically increase the gas tax along with the Consumer Price Index, or inflation.
The measure helps lawmakers avoid the political challenge of regular votes on whether to raise the tax, which led the group Tank the Gas Tax to put a repeal question on the ballot.
"This is the only tax in Massachusetts that goes up without a vote," said state Rep. Geoff Diehl, of Whitman. He contends it's unfair to automatically increase a tax that disproportionately affects middle- and lower-class families whose incomes don't increase with inflation.
"For the Legislature now, they will never have to take another vote for a gas tax to go up," Diehl said. "So somebody who's elected in this cycle will never be on record on how they feel about a tax increase. And the bulk of a legislator's job is to vote. Our job each year is to vote on how money is spent and where it's appropriated."
Tax adjustment supporters say it's a vital way to fund upgrades and maintenance to the state's infrastructure.
The Transportation Department pays $1 billion a year toward old debts, most of them from the Big Dig. Debt servicing makes up a quarter of MassDOT's annual budget.
State Transportation Secretary Richard Davey (who just announced he's stepping down from the post) fears that repealing the gas tax law will eliminate $2 billion in funding over the next 10 years.
"We are told that we can have it all and we don't have to pay for it. It's just not true," Davey said. "We have to continue to re-invest, and I think increasing the gas tax by half a penny a year, on average, is what it would be. Some years it won't go up. It's a prudent thing to do."
Davey said cutting that source of money would affect a number of projects, the biggest of which would be South Coast Rail, a new commuter rail line that would run from Boston to Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford. It's projected to cost about $2 billion.
Davey also warned that residents would see smaller effects: more litter along highways or road construction taking longer to complete. He said some projects might not get completed at all.
"It's not in-your-face big other than South Coast Rail," he said. "But all the improvements that thousands of people have expressed their thoughts, desires and dreams to us over the last couple years, they're definitely in jeopardy."
But indexing opponents say that money is already available in state government — it's just being misspent.
Tank the Gas Tax has identified hundreds of millions of dollars in what it considers wasted or mismanaged taxpayer funding.
They include welfare fraud, pay raises for state employees and hundreds of millions spent on building a new Health Connector website.
"We are certainly spending a lot of money in places that I don't think the taxpayer is even aware of," Diehl said. "And at the same time, [the taxpayers are] being asked to cough up more every year now without a vote. They'll never know how their Legislature actually feels about this."
Secretary Davey agreed that there are areas where state government can be more efficient. When asked if he's been as efficient as he can be, he had a quick response.
"No. If anyone ever tells you they're the most efficient agency or organization ever, private or public sector, by the way, it's not right. You have to constantly be looking for ways to be more efficient," he said.
A recent WBUR poll on the issue shows indexing supporters with a slight lead — 45 to 39.
One concern people on both sides have is over the ballot question's wording. A no vote would keep the tax in line with inflation. A yes vote on Question 1 would repeal the measure, and keep the gas tax at 24 cents a gallon.
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