State House Roundup: Feeding The T
Some topics are just not acceptable for dinner table conversation, and the election-year legislative agenda is beginning to look a bit like a holiday feast.
So perhaps it’s just as well that the “adult conversation” about transportation funding will have to wait until next year. It’ll give vegetarian lawmakers time to consider the meaty menu being prepped by the executive chef in his third-floor State House kitchen.
An announcement of official federal approval this week for first-phase engineering work on the $1.3 billion Green Line extension project came with the far more intriguing caveat from Transportation Secretary Richard Davey that without a significant state funding source, the tracks may never be laid.
For now, the T will have to be content with the $51 million bailout approved by the House this week and destined for rubber-stamping in the Senate as a one-year fix to a problem everyone could see coming and which Rep. William Straus warned will be worse next year.
But where will the significant funding come from? "You got to wait for my plan. We're thinking through what our options are," Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters. A per-mile-driven fee, tying the gas tax to inflation, raising T fares and parking fees? “All hypotheticals,” the governor explained.
And yet there they were, laid out to see and not looking so hypothetical in the state’s application for federal New Starts funding for the Green Line extension project. The administration never did release the full application, and declined to discuss it when it leaked, but as previews go it was rich.
In some ways, the choices have always been there, a menu of options easily guessed, but rarely embraced, largely due to the lack of political and public support.
"We can no longer defer or delay," Gov. Deval Patrick said about a finding a long-term solution to the state’s transportation financing needs.
That was in 2007. For now, there is 6 percent unemployment to crow about, biotech companies to woo and a president to re-elect.
The Legislature also has more pressing concerns, chief of which could be compromising on an economic rebalancing of the health care system, with jobs, profits and, well, lives, on the line. That bill officially went to conference this week with Rep. Steven Walsh and Sen. Richard Moore taking the lead.
That brought the total to five of bills in conference committee. The House next week could take a significant step toward breaking the logjam in at least one conference when it takes up a $1.6 billion transportation bond bill, potentially settling its key differences with the Senate that have stalled the release of local road and bridge funds.
Maybe that will help with the “deep level of frustration” Braintree Mayor Joe Sullivan, an architect of the law intended to put the T on a path to financial freedom, told Lt. Gov. Tim Murray that local officials were feeling as they watch legislative entropy fritter away the construction season.
While Chapter 90 money will eventually be sprung from its Beacon Hill prison, bottle bill supporters learned the hard way this week why putting faith in legislative action without a Plan B can be dangerous.
Unlike the proponents of auto repair legislation and evaluation-based school staffing decisions, backers of an expansion to the state’s bottle redemption law abandoned their drive last year to take the plan to the voters in 2012, believing that despite all historic evidence to the contrary, populist support for the law would carry the day.
"It just seems like common sense," Janet Domenitz, executive of MassPIRG, said last October when advocates announced they would cease signatures gathering efforts. How about now?
As proponents of the previously mentioned ballot questions have used that option as a blunt instrument to push along their respective agendas with lawmakers in the waning days of formal sessions, the legislative committee reviewing the bottle bill expansion banished it to its bookish grave this week.
Rep. John Keenan, the House Telecom, Energy and Utilities chairman called it a tax, and those just won’t fly, not this year anyway.
The country planning to come to him next week for the International BIO conference in Boston, Gov. Patrick was also back on the road, this time visiting Washington and Iowa, both of presidential import, but not his own, or so he says.
The District was given a double dose of surrogate Deval, who was in Washington on Thursday to address the American Constitution Society and the Center for American Progress before hopscotching to Des Moines for a Democratic dinner fundraiser.
In back-to-back speeches, Patrick presented the 2012 national election as a Frostian choice between competing ideals: Down one road is a government that can play a role in helping people help themselves; down the other, Patrick said, is a path paved by those on the “hard right” embracing indiscriminant austerity in hopes of bringing the country back to some “romanticized version of the 17th Century” where everyone is better off left to fend for themselves.
“I don’t know why they think those were the ‘good old days.’ For people like me and many of you those days were not that good,” he said, according to prepared remarks.
The closest Patrick came to mentioning Mitt Romney by name were references to his “predecessor,” the one he said who left the state in a state of structural deficit.
“We have to make a choice in November. Choose wisely,” he told the American Constitution Society.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Reform before revenue? T bailout revenue now, bigger revenues later.
This program aired on June 16, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.