A fourth major business group has come out in favor of the approach to transportation financing offered by Democratic legislative leaders.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation on Wednesday announced its support for legislation aimed at generating $500 million in new revenues from taxes on tobacco, businesses and gasoline.
The foundation announced in a press release Wednesday that the House bill approved on a 97-55 vote Monday and a similar bill heading to the Senate floor "address the issue in a serious and responsible fashion." Gov. Deval Patrick, along with others supporting higher taxes and bigger investments to address transportation system needs, has rapped the proposal from legislative leaders as a "pretend fix" and "not serious."
While commending the Democratic leadership's plan for coming close to raising the $800 million that MTF says is needed to address operating budget gaps at state transportation agencies and a "robust increase" in capital spending,
MTF noted it preferred a 9-cent increase in the gas tax to the 3-cent hike in the legislative leadership's plan. The business-backed foundation called the sales tax on computer software in the bill among "troubling" tax hikes on businesses that will "place a burden on employers who must already contend with the highest business costs in the country. Many of the jobs impacted are highly mobile."
The foundation also released its analysis of the House and Senate bills, saying the House bill raised $680 million in fiscal 2018 from transportation-related sources that would cover operating budget gaps for transportation agencies in each of the next five years with $130 million available for debt service expenditures in 2018. The Senate proposal, according to MTF, increases transportation funding by about $800 million in fiscal 2018.
The analysis says both the House and Senate bills increase transportation spending in fiscal 2014 by $265 million, enough to raise Chapter 90 aid to municipalities from $200 million to $300 million. While the new taxes will deliver an infusion of cash for transportation, many of the long-term projections offered on the Hill in recent days about larger transportation investments are contingent on huge variables, including decisions made by future governors and Legislatures. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts High Technology Council have come out in support of the Democratic legislative leadership's approach to transportation financing.
A bill authored by Senate Democrats raising taxes by $500 million to pay for transportation will lead to higher fees, fares and tolls by asking transportation agencies to “aggressively” grow their own revenues, according to an analysis released Wednesday by activists who favor a larger tax and investment plan than the one making its way through the Legislature.
The Transportation for Massachusetts analysis calls on the Senate to speed up its proposed sweep of $77 million from the state’s Underground Storage Tank Fund and highlights other problems in the Senate bill, such as its lack of funds to aggressively move on mega-projects like the I-91 project in Springfield and the Green Line and South Coast rail extensions.
In addition to pushing for more money to mitigate future toll, fee and fare hikes, T4MASS, which is helmed by Kristina Egan, former state South Coast rail project director and former Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance director, faults the Senate plan on other fronts, saying it does not provide enough money to substantially expand and improve regional bus service, may underestimate cost growth trends at the MBTA, and includes as “new revenue” $40 million from rights-of-way leases that MassDOT officials are already working on. T4MASS on Wednesday urged lawmakers to consider steering to transportation revenues from new taxes that are not allocated or raising the gas tax by 9 cents a gallon - the Senate plan, like the House-approved bill, raises the gas tax 3 cents a gallon and ties the tax to inflation.
At a Boston Foundation event Wednesday, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Thomas McGee said he’d attended a swim banquet at a Saugus restaurant on Rte. 1 Tuesday night and told the restaurant owner that the state’s gas tax had been “eroded” by 9 cents since 1991 and asked whether it was a “crazy idea” to raise it by 9 cents a gallon now. “I really didn’t know what his response would be and he said, ‘I don’t see that as a big deal, or a big problem,’ ” said McGee, who went on to describe the poor condition of the nearby Walnut Street Bridge, a Rte. 1 overpass, and his inability to work a bridge replacement project into the state’s transportation budget.
McGee speculated about “devastating costs” to businesses that would occur if that bridge needed to be closed. McGee later clarified to the News Service that the 9-cent gas tax hike was offered as “perspective” and was “not a proposal.” The Senate is planning to begin consideration of its transportation financing bill on Saturday.
In the rush to pass higher taxes, the Senate plans to hold a rare Saturday session to take up a $500 million package of tobacco, business and gas taxes. Senate President Therese Murray announced the plans after a short session Wednesday morning. Murray told reporters the Senate would be coming in on Saturday.
“So far, that could change,” she added, and a minute later said they were “absolutely” planning to come in over the weekend. The Senate Wednesday adopted an order setting the deadline for amendments to be filed by Friday at 5 p.m. Originally amendments were expected to be filed by Wednesday night, with Senators hoping to take the bill up on Thursday. It was delayed when Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz objected to taking up the procedural order setting the amendment deadline.
Asked if she was disappointed the Senate debate would not occur Thursday as expected, Murray said, “No, in my tenure here I have allowed the members to use whatever procedures they have in front of them, parliamentary procedures. I’ve never pushed anything, or gone to a second legislative day, which every single Senate president before me has done. I want to give them their time to do this, and debate it. Asked about the Saturday session, Chang-Diaz said, “It is not what we were advocating for, but it does allow time for some more considered digestion of what does this bill mean in the context of the overall state budget.”
The House budget bill includes a provision to pay for keeping open 45 beds at the Taunton State Hospital, which the Patrick administration has attempted to close in order to consolidate long-term mental health care at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.
The House Ways and Means Committee's fiscal 2014 budget bill released Wednesday funds the line item for inpatient facilities and community-based mental health service at $172.2 million, about $10 million more than Gov. Deval Patrick included in the same line item. "If the Legislature were to decide that they want to keep Taunton running full-time then what they spend to do that would be, we feel, better spent shoring up community-based services," Massachusetts Association for Mental Health Deputy Director Timothy O'Leary recently told the News Service. O'Leary who backs the administration's plan to close Taunton, also said, "If the state could afford to have all of them, I guess I wouldn't be saying close them." Last year, the Legislature kept 45 beds at the hospital by overriding a Patrick veto. The hospital has support from Speaker Pro Tem Patricia Haddad who has said a study into mental health needs of the state must be completed before closing the hospital. The House budget also adds language about discharging clients from inpatient facilities to community services, requiring that “the cost to the commonwealth of serving the client in the community is less than or equal to the cost of serving the client in inpatient care.”
Calling on higher powers both spiritual and legislative, congregants and preachers from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization rejected the Legislature’s $500 million tax proposal to fund transportation, and sought more revenue for education and other programs.
“Today we say no, and why? Because what we and our members and the commonwealth of Mass have been offered is not a package, but a pacifier,” said Rev. Ray Hammond, of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain. He said, “We asked for a package and what we got was a pacifier, something intended to make us quiet down. Something designed to lull us to sleep, a pacifier.
"Now there was a time when that kind of worked, but not now and we say no.” A crowd gathered outside the lobby door of Senate President Therese Murray's office Tuesday and echoed Hammond with a resounding “no.” A Philadelphia native who moved to Massachusetts for college, Hammond referenced Murray’s own childhood in the working class neighborhood of Dorchester, saying that she should not forget the benefits she had received from tax-funded services.
“That’s why I say thank God for taxpayers,” Hammond said. He said, “Those taxes opened the doors of opportunity for me, and they opened the door for you President Murray.” As a number of religious leaders engaged a crowd of a couple dozen people in the third floor hallway, a senior aide to Murray poked his head out the door and then returned to the office suite