Mass. Senate Passes Transportation Finance Bill

The state Senate on Saturday overwhelmingly approved the latest version of a contentious transportation financing overhaul that aims to pump billions of dollars into the state's aging and debt-ridden transportation system over the next several years.

Senators, after considering dozens of amendments during a marathon ten-hour debate, voted 30-5 to back the measure, which includes about $500 million in new taxes. Unlike the House version earlier in the week, the Senate bill passed by a margin wide enough to override a possible veto by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who has criticized the bill for providing too little in revenue to address the state's long-term transportation needs.

The Senate version dedicates more revenue to transportation than the House bill, and Senate President Therese Murray said she hoped House lawmakers would accept the changes and Patrick would sign it.

"It was a good day. It was a good outcome," Murray said after the rare weekend session.

In a statement, the governor praised the Senate action as a "significant step forward," but he stopped well short of throwing his support behind the measure.

"The Senate bill contains many strong elements and others that require more understanding," Patrick said.

He expressed concern in his statement that the bill would divert to transportation some revenue that would otherwise go to programs such as education and environmental protection.

The bill seeks to end chronic deficits that have plagued the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, rebuild crumbling infrastructure and relieve lingering debt from Boston's massive Big Dig project. But the debate has been marked by sharp disagreements over how much and how quickly to spend on improving transportation.

The plan offered by Democratic legislative leaders called for raising the state's gasoline tax by 3 cents, to 24 cents a gallon, and indexing future increases in the tax to inflation. It also would increase the cigarette tax by $1 per pack, to $3.51, and boost the excise tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco.

The bill expands the sales tax to computer design services and software modifications and changes the way utilities are classified for tax purposes.

Lawmakers rejected a much larger, $1.9 billion tax plan proposed by Patrick that included an increase in the state income tax to generate new revenue for transportation and education.

Patrick slammed the initial bill offered by lawmakers as a "fiscal shell game" that only pretended to upgrade the transportation system. He said the legislators' proposal did not provide enough revenue to fix crumbling infrastructure or embark on new projects, such as extending commuter rail to New Bedford or expanding Boston's South Station.

During Saturday's debate, senators rejected a move by the tiny Republican caucus to strip out the proposed new taxes and increase funds available for transportation through administrative reforms and other non-tax revenue sources, including online gaming and future casino licenses.

The state should not "tax first, ask questions later," Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr said.

But Stephen Brewer, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said eliminating the taxes would be tantamount to putting the entire transportation plan "into the shredder."

When the debate was briefly disrupted by about two dozen protesters opposed to new taxes, Murray asked court officers to clear the Senate gallery of spectators. Many in the group went to the Statehouse after attending a Boston Common tea party rally featuring anti-tax activist Grover Nordquist.

"I don't understand why there isn't tremendous outrage" over the new taxes, said Ed Purtz, of Salem, who was among those evicted from the gallery.

Murray later told reporters that she acted because some of the spectators were using vulgar language and gestures.

Among the several amendments approved Saturday was one that would prod the MBTA into selling naming rights for subway and commuter rail stations, which backers said could generate another $20 million in revenue for the cash-strapped agency.

Opponents objected to the notion of attaching corporate names to iconic downtown subway stations such as Park Street or Copley.

"Naming rights is a place where I draw the line," said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston. "I don't honestly know what is the price tag we can appropriately put on our history."

Backers, however, said they believed the T could sell naming rights creatively while respecting tradition and pointed to the many newer stations with names that carry no historical significance.

The governor's plan and the one proposed by legislative leaders sought to erase the MBTA's operating deficit and avoid, at least temporarily, the need for further fare hikes or service cuts on the Boston-area transit system. Both plans also called for ending the practice of paying the salaries of state transportation employees with borrowed funds.

And while both plans would dedicate roughly the same amount of revenue to transportation in the next fiscal year starting July 1, the numbers would diverge sharply in future years.

The Patrick administration estimates its plan would provide, on average, $1.1 billion in additional annual transportation funding over the next 10 years, much of it going to capital improvements.

Brewer, who said the five-year Senate plan would reach an estimated $805 million by 2018, urged colleagues at the outset of the debate to ignore the sometimes harsh rhetoric surrounding the bill.

"There has been a lot of emotion and a serious case of hardball politics over the last couple of weeks in this regard," said Brewer, D-Barre. "I am very proud that during that time this body did not get caught up in emotion but instead worked collaboratively to make a good piece of legislation even better."

The Senate bill would generate additional revenue by dedicating an existing 2.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline surtax to transportation and requiring utilities with equipment on state highways to negotiate right-of-way agreements with the state.

The bill now moves to a House-Senate conference committee.

Earlier Coverage:

This article was originally published on April 14, 2013.

This program aired on April 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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