Beacon Hill Republicans To Dems:  How Much Tax Money for ‘Transportation’ Is Enough?

Printed from:

By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

When the House begins its promised debate on transportation revenue this month, Republican lawmakers will bring skepticism about whether the state actually needs funding beyond existing and already-proposed sources.

Both the party’s House leader and its ranking Transportation Committee member said Thursday they believe the push, led by Democrats, to bring in additional money from transportation sources for transportation needs is misguided. Like Governor Charlie Baker, they said the state has adequate revenues to address its needs.

The contours of the revenue debate remain unclear, even as top lawmakers involved reiterate their plans to bring a package to the floor for a vote by the end of January. The Transportation Committee co-chairman, state Representative William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), said Thursday, January 2 that the legislation will likely take the form of a single bill with “a number of components.”

But Minority Leader Brad Jones (R-North Reading) pointed to the state’s more than $1 billion surplus in fiscal year 2019 — which Democratic leaders struggled for months to allocate — and progress toward a surtax on the wealthy as evidence that the state does not need new revenue streams to address transportation needs.

“They’ve already advanced a proposal that they’re planning on being on the ballot next year [2022] for the millionaires tax,” Jones told State House News Service. “That’s supposedly going to raise, by their numbers, $1.5 billion to $2 billion every year. That’s supposed to be in part for transportation. So the question is:  how much more than that do they think we need, especially when we have an economy near record unemployment levels?”

The House and Senate voted 147-48 in June to advance a constitutional amendment (Massachusetts House Bill 86) that would impose a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million. A Constitutional Convention will need to approve the amendment again during the 2021-2022 session for it to go before voters on the November 2022 ballot.

Revenue generated by the higher rate, which supporters say could reach $2 billion annually, would be directed specifically toward education — a field where lawmakers in November agreed to spend an additional $1.5 billion over the next seven years — and transportation.

Separate from that, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) began pushing last year to boost the state’s coffers with money sourced from transportation for transportation needs. The effort appears to have drawn some momentum from service disruptions on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and a Baker administration study confirming that worsening traffic carries economic and environmental consequences.

Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) has not indicated if or when she plans to take up the topic, should a bill pass the House.

Voters appear to support the general idea to raise new transportation revenue, but are divided on many of the strategies lawmakers are considering, according to a November MassINC poll.

State Representative Steven Howitt of Seekonk, the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, argued that leaders should focus on how to best deploy the resources they have rather than how to increase the amount available.

“It’s not a revenue issue, it’s a spending issue,” Howitt said in an interview. “We have one of the largest budgets we’ve ever had, what, $42 billion? That being said, I think the money is in the budget for some of these infrastructure improvements. We just have to redirect where the money is going.”

Straus, who has been working with DeLeo, Revenue Committee chairman Mark Cusack (D-Braintree), and other top House Democrats to craft the legislation, declined to say Thursday what will be included in the package, though he did rule out a public transit fare hike.

He and Cusack have previously hinted an increase to the 24-cents-per-gallon gas tax Massachusetts last raised in 2013 is likely to be a component.

“There will be a number of different options that will affect different parts of the transportation system,” Straus said in an interview, adding that it is “hard to predict” the final terms because new ideas could arise before the bill is released.

Jones said Republicans will be “very, very reticent” to support a broad-based revenue package and remain “very, very skeptical” about the push, particularly because he said he has not received any outline from Democratic leadership about what the legislation will entail.

Republican Governor Charlie Baker has said he will wait to see what emerges from the House debate, but he has made clear that he opposes a congestion pricing pilot that would alter roadway tolls to encourage off-peak travel or any gas tax hike.

His administration has been developing a multi-state cap-and-invest program on greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative, that is projected to increase the price of gas by 5 to 17 cents per gallon and also generate more than $500 million in revenue for Massachusetts state government to spend.

Howitt said that the Transportation Climate Initiative “doesn’t seem to be the right approach” and, referring to himself and other Republican members, said an overall increase in the gas tax “just is not something that we would be in favor of.”

In his $18 billion transportation bond bill, which has not moved in the Legislature since it was the subject of a committee hearing in October, Baker proposed directing half of the Transportation Climate Initiative revenue toward public transit.

Jones pointed to another component of the governor’s bond bill that would reform contract and procurement practices as an important step for the Legislature to support.

“I think [transportation] has to have more focused resources, but again, a lot of the conversations I’ve had are about having the ability to get the projects out and have contractors bid and do the projects in a timely fashion,” Jones said.