Massachusetts Senate GOP: Developing Surplus Can Fund Gas Tax Relief

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By Chris Van Buskirk
State House News Service

With gas prices holding at high levels, Massachusetts Senate Republicans plan Thursday to force Democrats in that branch to go on the record with their positions on temporary gas tax relief.

House Democrats earlier this month easily swept aside a GOP bid in that branch to trigger gas tax relief, and with Republicans holding just three seats in the 40-member Senate, the proposal appears unlikely to pass; but a recorded vote could create campaign fodder for challengers in this year’s elections.

The Senate amendment to a COVID-related spending bill would suspend the state’s gas tax through Labor Day.

AAA reported the average gas price in Massachusetts was $4.25 a gallon on Wednesday, March 23, down 7 cents a gallon from last week. Gas prices in the state are still well above what they were this time a year ago.

Senate Republicans said the effort to suspend the 24-cents-per-gallon state gas tax represents an issue that members of both major parties could support to alleviate burdens residents are experiencing at the pump.

The Senate gavels into a formal session at 11 a.m. Thursday to consider the supplemental budget and its 51 amendments. At a Wednesday morning press conference outside the State House, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said lawmakers cannot “stand idle” as Massachusetts motorists experience rising prices at the pump.

Asked if he would force a roll call vote on the gas tax amendment (4) sponsored by state Senator Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton), Tarr said “we anticipate there will be a roll call in the Senate on this measure.” Senators only need three members to indicate their support — a number equal to the minority party membership in that branch — for a roll call vote to occur.

Fattman said gas tax relief is “incredibly essential” and pointed to a successful push to suspend state gas taxes in Maryland and another effort to set up a gas tax holiday in Connecticut.

“It’s done for the benefit of the people that we represent, the hardworking people that if you get off this hill, and go into the communities of the commonwealth and start talking to them, you will find that it would be incredibly important for them to realize those $20 to $30 a week that they would save,” Tarr said.

Earlier this month, state Representative Peter Durant (R-Spencer) proposed an amendment to the same spending bill that would have suspended the state’s gas tax until the average price of gas dropped below $3.70 a gallon.

That amendment was rejected on an unrecorded voice vote when the House debated its budget bill on March 9. House Republicans did not attempt to force a recorded vote.

At the time, the Revenue Committee chairman, state Representative Mark Cusack, called the idea a “gimmick” while House Speaker Ronald Mariano dismissed the proposal as a “stunt.” The House Democrats said they are exploring tax relief ideas.

A Transportation Committee co-chairman, state Representative Bill Straus (D-Mattapoisett), said gas tax revenue is one of the guarantees the state uses when borrowing money to pay for transportation projects. He warned that pausing collections of the tax for an unknown period of time could hurt the state’s ratings with bond agencies and make projects more expensive.

Tarr said Senate Republicans will propose using projected fiscal year 2023 surplus tax revenue to cover the $300 million to $400 million the state would forego by suspending the gas tax through Labor Day. The Senate bill includes $100 million in one-time funds to repair roads from damage that occurred over the winter, Tarr noted.

“We also don’t want to jeopardize our bond rating or our relationships with our bond underwriters. So we have the ability to do this, it’s reflected right here. And we don’t have to touch the stabilization fund to do it, which I know is something some folks have raised,” Tarr said.

A spokesman from Senate President Karen Spilka’s office declined to comment.

Beth Dumouchel, a Fattman constituent who lives in Whitinsville, said the rising cost of gas has led her family to cut back on trips and recreational activities to be able to afford driving her three special needs children to and from appointments.

“Since the sharp spike in prices we have not been able to afford enjoying any of what recreations Massachusetts has to offer. For the past three months we have stayed home every weekend,” Dumouchel said during the press conference. “We scaled back on even going to our beautiful Blackstone Valley walking paths because work and therapeutics are essential.”

Asked what he thought about suspending the gas tax at an unrelated event Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker said proposals providing relief to drivers in the state “are interesting ideas.”

“I hope they get a fair hearing there,” Baker said.

National Federation of Independent Business Massachusetts state director Christopher Carlozzi said small businesses are getting hit hard by rising gas costs.

“Massachusetts business owners have been through a lot over the last two years. They’ve dealt with shutdowns, restrictions, prolonged restrictions, I might add, they dealt with the labor shortage when they’re trying to bring workers back into the workforce,” Carlozzi said. ” … These rising fuel prices are just one more added cost of doing business in Massachusetts.”

The push to suspend the gas tax also drew praise from Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Doughty, who said in a statement “no matter who proposes the effort, it is the right thing to do for Massachusetts drivers.”

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance also called for state officials to suspend the gas tax.

“Some State House leaders may think it’s a gimmick to suspend a tax, but for middle class motorists, it means more money in their bank account,” MassFiscal spokesman Paul Craney said. “The state can and should take action to support its struggling middle class motorists and taking action today is one step closer to providing that immediate relief.”

State Senator Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth) said suspending the gas tax would help residents and businesses cope with rising inflation, economic insecurity, and gasoline prices.

“We want Massachusetts families to go out and to enjoy all the beauties our state has to offer,” O’Connor said. “The virus was once the barrier to doing that. But now it’s gas prices. And we can lift the barrier there as well.”


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