Much-Debated Transportation Bill Likely To Be Enacted This Week

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This week, a final version of the much-debated transportation finance bill is likely to be enacted — if lawmakers succeed in overriding a veto from Gov. Deval Patrick.

The House plans to vote on Wednesday, followed by the Senate on Thursday, and leaders in both chambers say they're confident they have the votes to override the veto.

Patrick vetoed the bill Friday after lawmakers rejected his amendment to increase the state gasoline tax to compensate for tolls scheduled to come down on the turnpike in 2017.

While the new legislation makes major new investments in the state's roads, bridges and public transit, it is a far cry from the ambitious plan Patrick laid out in January.

Looking Back At Patrick's Original Plan

When Patrick delivered his State of the Commonwealth address in January, he dropped a bombshell.

"My budget will propose that we increase the income tax by 1 percentage point to 6.25 percent," he said in his speech. "To make that increase fair to all, according to their ability to pay, I will propose that we double the personal exemptions for every taxpayer, and eliminate a number of itemized deductions."

The governor's ambitious tax reform plan would have expanded taxes and fees by nearly $2 billion over time, he told a very surprised audience of lawmakers (and lobbyists). That would allow massive new investments in transportation, and in education, too.

"That changed the entire debate and frankly undercut his own strategy and the strategy of all others who were going to focus on transportation," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Widmer and many other players say that going into 2013, they expected transportation spending would be front and center. There'd been studies, polls, a statewide public hearing tour by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray and the governor all had signaled that this was the year to revive the state's ailing transit systems.

But suddenly Patrick had changed the focus.

Richard Dimino is president of A Better City, a business-backed group in Boston that, among other things, advocates for transportation investment.

"We thought that the idea of crowding the field and making this the year of transportation, education and a wide range of tax increases might limit the outcome for transportation," Cimino said. "Sadly to say, that's kind of what happened."

Still, by late winter, it was clear the Legislature would jettison most of the governor's grand vision, narrow the debate to transportation, and spend what Dimino says is real money on it. Here's DeLeo in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in late March:

I believe it should be far more narrow in scope, and of a significantly smaller size. We seek to fund the priorities we need to to enhance the economy, without creating any collateral damage.

So, now legislative leaders are boosting funding for public higher education and a few other initiatives. But most new revenues, that's for transportation. They've settled on a modest 3 cent gas tax hike, coupled with new business and tobacco taxes, and new revenues provided by MassDOT. Altogether, it's about $650 million a year — half the new transportation spending Patrick had wanted.

The Political Calculus

Could lawmakers go further? In-depth polls show that a strong majority of the public would support increasing gas taxes at least, even more, as long as it goes to roads and bridges. Even Widmer says lawmakers could raise more and survive the next election.

"I frankly don't understand why they couldn't go to 8 or 9 cents, 10 cents," he said. "I don't think that would change the political equation one bit."

As the end-game plays out, some lawmakers say Patrick's attempts to push them to a higher revenue number have been not helpful. Policy surprises, back-and-forth veto threats and pressure moves such as withholding aid to municipalities, they say, have backfired.

"He didn't have the courtesy to tell us he was doing that," said Democratic Rep. Denise Provost, of Somerville, who voted against her powerful leaders on the House's first version of the transportation package, after Patrick threatened a veto. But speaking just before going into a meeting with the governor last week, she was clearly frustrated.

"The governor has tended to announce his decisions after he's made them," she said. "And that doesn't come down well, especially [when] some of us have at times stuck our necks out or voted against our own leadership."

Not this time. When the latest version of the transportation finance bill came to the House floor — under a new veto threat — Provost stuck with her leaders and voted for the bill. As did almost every other House Democrat, virtually guaranteeing an override of a Patrick veto.

Lawmakers have good reason to take it slow, Dimino says. It's one thing to be a popular governor in his last term, with policy polls behind him, Dimino says, and another to be a lawmaker facing re-election.

"I do think there's a different calculus relative to how elected officials look at their constituencies and how they look at their relationship to the voting public, versus surveys and advocacy groups, I do think that's very real," he said.

Transportation advocates are cheering for the hundreds of millions of new dollars that will be invested. But they also say the Legislature's going only part-way to addressing the need.

No one expects lawmakers to raise taxes next year, an election year, but the advocates are already gearing up to renew the conversation about transportation and taxes after that.

This program aired on July 22, 2013.


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