Wolf, other gubernatorial candidates answer questions about taxes and transportation

Wolf says, "we need to continue to invest in our kids and in our infrastructure", wants "safe and reliable transportation system".
Dan Wolf separates himself from the crowd. SHNS photo.

SHNS Q&A: Gubernatorial candidates on transportation and taxes

Gov. Deval Patrick has engaged in a back and forth with House and Senate leaders over a $500 million tax bill to pay for transportation and other budget priorities.

Four candidates have declared their intention to run for the Corner Office, which will be open in 2014, and each provided their perspective on the varying proposals for funding transportation.

Patrick has returned the Legislature’s tax bill, saying it comes up short because it does not account for revenue losses if turnpike tolls come down as scheduled in 2017.

Joe Avellone, a health care executive; Don Berwick, the former acting chief of Medicare and Medicaid; Sen. Dan Wolf of Harwich; and Treasurer Steven Grossman, all Democrats, have declared their candidacies.

QUESTION: The governor and the Legislature are at loggerheads over the issue of transportation financing. Would you have approached the issue any differently than Gov. Deval Patrick, or would you have followed his exact course, by insisting on a bill that guarantees $800 million in revenue by 2018 and vowing to veto any legislation that could fall short of that mark?

AVELLONE: I would not second guess the approach to negotiations taken by Governor Patrick, without knowing much more than we know about the private conversations between him and the leaders of the two chambers. Negotiation with the Legislature is a fundamental part of our process. The overall principle of finding the right balance of positions that can work best for everyone is critical to moving things forward.

BERWICK: The average life expectancy of the buses used in our state is ten years. An average bus in Massachusetts is twelve years old. The average life expectancy of a railroad engine is twenty years. The average railroad engine used in Massachusetts is twenty-two years old. Our transportation system is in dire straits, due largely to neglect and lack of leadership by prior Administrations. In fact, as MassDOT reported earlier this year, we underinvest in our transportation system by $1.2 billion every single year. It would be short-sighted for [us] not to fix the transportation system as quickly as we can; we would pay a much higher price downstream if we let it deteriorate further. Massachusetts's families drive on these roads, take these trains, and ride these buses, and we should not let them down. Governor Patrick is on the right track, and, as Governor, I would work hard with the Legislature to make sure we have and maintain a transportation system that we can be proud of and confident in.

WOLF: I applaud Governor Patrick for proposing a generationally responsible plan to fix our roads and bridges and to fund needed transportation projects all across the state. I support the Governor’s overall vision and appreciate that he started this important conversation about the kind of Commonwealth we want to build. A safe and reliable transportation system is a critical ingredient to creating a health economy and spurring job growth. We need to ensure that whatever bill we pass is regionally equitable and will adequately fund needed improvements to our roads, bridges, rails and waterways to support this growing economy.

GROSSMAN: I fully expect that $800 million will be available by 2018 for transportation and infrastructure, and I believe the governor and legislative leadership will ultimately achieve that goal. It is easy in the back and forth of the lawmaking process to focus on the controversy and forget that there is agreement to make a substantial downpayment on critical investments in transportation and infrastructure that are essential to growing the Massachusetts economy and realizing our full potential.

The Western turnpike tolls that are in question do not even come into play until 2017, in the middle of the next governor's term. If I am fortunate to be governor then, I will ensure that adequate resources will be available to meet our commitments.

QUESTION: Gov. Patrick proposed raising $1.9 billion in new revenues for transportation and education with an income tax hike, the elimination of several tax incentives coupled with a sales tax decrease. The Legislature has proposed raising $500 million in new revenues for transportation, education and other budget items with a gas tax increase, more tobacco taxes and the application of the sales tax to certain computer software services. What is your analysis of the pros and cons of the various proposals?

AVELLONE: I have great respect for the Governor, and how he has guided us through a difficult recession. I have strong support for his goals going forward. However, I do not agree with the broad base tax proposal. In my travels around the state, having now been in 93 of our cities and towns since January, there are many areas of high unemployment – some exceeding 15% - in our state. I judge that our economic recovery is too fragile, or non-existent, in some of our gateway cities, and such a tax would hinder the pace of recovery. I believe that as the recovery takes hold, revenues for the state will rise and provide increased possibility of investment. I also believe that aggressively controlling our healthcare costs, now approaching 40% of the state budget, will provide much more revenue for other investments in the coming years. As a first effort to create a dedicated revenue source for needed infrastructure improvements, I do agree with a cigarette tax increase as proposed by the House. I do not agree with the current proposal for a computer software services tax, as I believe it could hinder our efforts to grow the software services industry here. I would need to study the full economic effects of the gas tax.

BERWICK: The Governor's proposal would reform the tax code to make it simpler and more progressive and to reduce the burden on those who can least afford it. I think it's a fine start. I believe that people with more resources should bear a larger share of the burden. The Legislature will continue to debate the specifics of this, as they should, but let's not lose sight of the big picture. Massachusetts' future growth depends less on specific tax rates and more on making sure that every child has access to the best schools in the nation so we can build the best workforce in the nation, and on making sure that our families have access to a sound and modern transportation system. As a former pediatrician, I know especially how important it is to invest in our kids' futures. Like many states, we're trying to close achievement gaps, open more preschools and guarantee to each Massachusetts family that their neighborhood school is prepared to teach their child well. As an activist for improvement, I also know that government needs to earn the trust of citizens by delivering a dollar of value for every dollar of taxes paid.

WOLF: For Massachusetts to continue to move our economy forward and grow jobs - whether in manufacturing, biotech, high tech, clean tech or other critical sectors - we need to continue to invest in our kids and in our infrastructure. If we don't, we risk falling behind not just other states but our competitors around the world. To support these investments what we need is a fair tax structure that reflects our economy and our values. I support a progressive approach that avoids placing further burdens on middle class and working families but asks those who have prospered in this economy to pay a little more.

GROSSMAN: I have said from the start that I agree with the governor's priorities: we must make robust investments in transportation, infrastructure, and education to secure a dynamic economic future for the people of the Commonwealth. While the Legislature's $800-million budget and transportation plan that will eventually become law is not as much as the Governor sought, let us not lose sight of the fact that it is still a major step forward toward meeting our most urgent priorities.

However, we should balance the need for public investment with the needs of working people and their families who must pay their rent, put food on the table, and pay for their children's education.

As Paul Tsongas said wisely, "You cannot redistribute wealth that is never created." We should not be so aggressive in spending that we outrace the economy's ability to finance those investments. A bold and creative growth strategy is essential to achieving the brightest possible future for the people of Massachusetts.

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