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By Fred Thys (WBUR)
Tax hikes have emerged as a flashpoint in a series of community meetings led by the Massachusetts Republican party. The GOP has just wrapped up six such meetings across the state, and found divided opinion on the tax issue.
Senator Bruce Tarr of Gloucester carries a list of new taxes Gov. Deval Patrick is proposing. He starts to read it.
"A five percent increase in the tax on alcohol, a five percent increase in the tax on candy, five percent increase in the tax on soda?"
Republicans have organized what they're calling the Hardship Listening Tour to hear what taxpayers think of all these proposed new taxes.
"The purpose is to give the average person who is paying the bills the opportunity to have a voice in the development of next year's budget," Tarr says.
About 30 people have come to the big new library in Middleton this night to tell Tarr and two area Republican representatives what they think. In the crowd, there is definitely an outrage over the smorgasbord of new tax proposals. Jody Roffi, a florist from Reading, owns two trucks and she's worried about the governor's proposed 19-cent increase in the gas tax.
"Every time you send a truck out, every time you receive goods, it's so affected by the price of gasoline or airline fuel," she says.
Roffi also co-owns another fleet of three delivery trucks, and that's got her worried about proposed increases in tolls in the Ted Williams tunnel, increases that Patrick wants to put on hold until July.
"We transport in and out of the airport all day," she says. "The toll fee is really the one, coming in and out of the airport, that's crippling for anyone who goes in and out and there are so many businesses that go in and out every day."
Patrick has said that he will not push for toll increases if the legislature approves the gas tax, but Roffi doesn't believe it.
"He said he wouldn't do both," she says. "I think we may get both."
Tolls and the gas tax dominate the conversation. Peter Moon, from Middleton, commutes into Boston each day over the Tobin Bridge — "getting whacked", he says, "with that three-dollar toll" — and he says an increase in the gas tax would be easier to take if he knew that his money was going to fix roads and bridges.
"I understand that we have to pay taxes, and I understand that there may even be an increase, and I'm willing to pay some increase," he says. "Some people may disagree. I'm willing to pay it, but not 19 cents a gallon. That's, I think, a little overboard, but even if it were — I don't know what the amount would be --my concern is how much of that money will actually go to really fixing the roads and fixing the bridges."
One and a half cents of the proposed 19-cent gas tax increase would go to fixing roads and bridges.
But not everyone at this forum came to complain about taxes. Jody Jarvis has a son diagnosed as a high functioning autistic child. She and her husband-- who recently lost his job-- spend about $10,000 a year on occupational therapy for the boy. The state has cut funding that used to help pay for therapy and home health care workers. She calls that move penny-wise and pound-foolish and wants the money restored, even if it requires new taxes.
"So I ask everyone to consider: If we don't do something to help support families so that families can support their loved ones with disabilities, where are they going to go?" she asks. "That's going to become yet another burden, and it costs a lot more money to have somebody in a community and a home that has to be funded through the state. That is not what most families want."
Perhaps no one sums up the frustrations of the taxpayers who show up more than Jean Phelps, who has come from Saugus. This winter, the town decided to save money by not plowing streets unless it snowed more than four inches, and its streets need repairs. But Phelps is also the CEO of Lifelinks, a non-profit that provides services to children who can't survive without medications, special equipment and therapies.
"I'm in an untenable position of going home at night and arguing with my husband over, 'Geez, do we use tax revenues to pave roads and improve a school system that is going into the toilet, or does the money need to come to agencies like Lifelinks?'" she asks. "And I am incredibly angry that I have to have that conversation, and then I get even more angry driving around listening to NPR, and I sit in my car and I think: I don't want a bailout. I don't want a handout. I just want the money that these families have been so desperately needing."
Phelps says taxpayers have to figure out how to stop having these arguments over what to cut: Is it police? Is it fire? Is it schools?
This program aired on March 30, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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