Gas tax option for Mass. towns explored on Beacon Hill

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BOSTON – In a brief public hearing lacking of any counter-arguments, members of the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee listened Tuesday to a western Massachusetts lawmaker’s pitch to let cities and towns decide whether to slap drivers with a 3-cent-a-gallon fuel tax surcharge at the pump.

“I just look at it as another tool in the toolbox for municipalities to kind of chart their own course,” state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, told the committee. A tax under the measure would apply to gasoline and diesel sales at filling stations with the boundaries of the city or town imposing it.

Under Pignatelli’s proposal, filling station operators would send the revenue to the state. From there it would be distributed to the taxing communities. The revenue raised through the surcharge could only be used for local road and bridge repairs.

The only other person to testify before the committee was Charlton Town Administrator Robin L. Craver. Craver compared Charlton to Lee, a Berkshires town that neighbors Lenox. Last summer, Pignatelli and state Sen. Benjamin Downing, a Democrat from nearby Pittsfield, introduced a bill specific to Lee which, if passed, would let voters there impose a local gas tax.

Craver pointed out that Charlton and Lee have one crucial thing in common.

“We both have our town split by the Massachusetts Turnpike, which takes a lot of our resources,” Craver said.

But Craver didn’t mention another turnpike-related feature the two towns have in common: filling station service plazas on the heavily traveled limited-access toll road that happen to be located inside town borders. A surcharge in either town would apply to pumps on the Pike.

The plazas on both the eastbound and westbound sides of the toll road in Charlton sell more than 12 million gallons of gas annually, according to a Worcester Telegram report. At that rate, a 3-cent surcharge could generate more than $360,000 for the town each year.

State Sen. Anne Gobi, a Democrat from Spencer, has filed a legislative proposal identical to the one from Downing and Pignatelli but on Charlton’s behalf.

According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, last spring, Lee voters at Town Meeting gave their initial approval for the surtax measure. If the proposal from Pignatelli and Downing passes on Beacon Hill, voters in Lee will need to approve it a second time before it can take effect.

As for the proposal that would affect all 351 cities and towns in the Bay State, Pignatelli said he thinks it’s only fair for municipalities to decide for themselves whether to impose a gas tax surcharge. Pignatelli also noted that the municipal association had urged Gov. Charlie Baker to fund the annual Chapter 90 road repair program at $300 million, but the Swampscott Republican requested $200 million in a bill he filed on Friday.

“When we talked to the MMA, they said the real number should probably be closer to $600 million,” Pignatelli said, referring to the municipal association. “So my attitude is that if we can’t develop the revenues for our cities and towns to invest in their own roads and bridges, let’s give them the tools to raise their own revenue.”

Soon after Pignatelli was finished delivering his testimony, Marblehead advocacy group Citizens for Limited Taxation criticized the proposals.

“Apparently Rep. Pignatelli didn’t read the results from the four questions that appeared on the Massachusetts ballot in 2014 – he would have discovered that Question 1, which tied gas tax increases to the CPI, was defeated 53 percent to 47 percent,” the group said in a statement, referring to the vote to dump automatic gas tax increases tied to gains in the Consumer Price Index. “This, despite the fact that opponents of the increase were outspent 30 to 1.”

The fiscally conservative group also faulted Pignatelli’s “audacity” in introducing a local option gas tax bill.

“We know the representative is tone-deaf when it comes to the taxpayers; his latest CLT taxpayer rating of zero can attest to that,” the group said. “Leave the gas tax alone.”