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Mass. Voters Like Idea Of Raising Local Taxes To Fund Local Transportation

MBTA bus (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
MBTA bus (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the so-called “Fair Share” constitutional amendment this week, which would have created a 4 percent additional tax on incomes over $1 million that would go to transportation and education.

Voters may get another chance to weigh in on transportation funding, at least on a region-by-region basis. State Sen. Eric Lesser is sponsoring a bill that would let cities and regions raise their own taxes, through ballot questions, to fund slates of transportation projects.

The bill has been introduced repeatedly in recent sessions, and polling shows it has remained very popular. Our polling on regional ballots for transportation since 2012 has found consistent high support and very little opposition.

Our most recent polling (crosstabs, topline results) found 70 percent of voters support giving cities and regions this power. Only 16 percent were opposed, and nearly as many (14 percent) were undecided. (The poll was conducted at the end of 2017 and funded by the Barr Foundation.)

(Courtesy of the MassINC Polling Group)
(Courtesy of the MassINC Polling Group)

The "Fair Share" question was polling well also, with polls from WBUR and elsewhere finding strong majorities in favor. Many on Beacon Hill had all but spent the estimated $2 billion the surtax would have raised to fund future policy proposals.

Without that voter-approved windfall, Democratic lawmakers on Beacon Hill are left casting about for alternatives to fund their policy ideas, particularly in the areas of education and transportation.

Some of the ideas are reintroducing the same constitutional amendment through the legislative process, raising the income tax for all but offsetting it for lower-earning households, or using a combination of other taxes and policies to fill some of the gaps.

Regional ballots are one such proposal. The idea has gained prominent supporters.

“In Massachusetts, we need more funding to meet our system’s needs, but we do not yet take advantage of a method used across the country to finance transportation investments” said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. (The Boston Globe's Shirley Leung rounds up some prominent examples of this approach from other states.)

Apart from being popular, regional ballots would also sidestep the longstanding perception, accurate or not, that regions farther from Boston are paying into a transportation system that gets them very little in return.

Transportation is an intensely local issue — voters know their own commutes best, and we all have our own stressors.

Our polling has also found that voters favor local control over transportation spending, and are more willing to support new revenues like tolls if the funding stays in the region where it is collected. Regional ballots would capitalize on this sentiment, putting voters in the driver’s seat in deciding whether important local projects should move forward.

To be clear, just because voters want to authorize these regional ballot questions for transportation does not mean that they would necessarily vote in favor of a ballot question in their own community. That will depend on what mix of projects the question would seek to fund and what tax increases are proposed. On both those counts, advocates will have many successes and failures to look at from other parts of the country.

In most successful campaigns elsewhere, ballot measures are used to fund new projects, extend service to a new area or restore service that had been recently cut. It is harder to ask voters to tax themselves just to make things work, by funding basic maintenance.

For more than a decade, reports from outside groups and state commissions have warned it will take new money to fully address the multibillion-dollar maintenance backlogs at the MBTA and for the state’s highway system.

“Local ballot initiatives give voters a direct hand in raising funds for projects they will directly benefit from. This won’t solve all of our funding problems, but it’s certainly a key tool that we should explore,” says MAPC's Draisen.

In other words, lawmakers should not expect to pass the tax-raising entirely onto municipalities. But until the Legislature decides on a state-level solution, empowering cities and regions to raise their own transportation funds is an idea that enjoys broad public support.

Steve Koczela is the president of The MassINC Polling Group and has overseen WBUR's polling since 2011. He tweets @skoczela. Rich Parr is the research director at The MassINC Polling Group. He tweets at @richparr79.

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Steve Koczela Twitter Contributor
Steve Koczela is the president of The MassINC Polling Group and has overseen WBUR's polling since 2011.

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Rich Parr Twitter Contributor
Rich Parr is research director with The MassINC Polling Group and runs MPG’s office in western Massachusetts.

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