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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Get it right the first time

Massachusetts legislative leaders seem to have a visceral fear of the gasoline tax. Maybe it was the stratospheric levels the fuels climbed to last year -- and the resulting pain in the wallet inflicted on motorists. Or maybe the have a problem with anything Gov. Deval Patrick proposes.

In any event, consensus seems to be building -- at least among leadership -- to solve all the state's financial travails -- including the massive amount of cash needed to maintain and restore crumbling roads, bridges and subway systems -- by adding a penny to the sales tax.

A 20 percent increase in the sales tax is estimated to generate $750 million. Patrick's 19-cent gas tax hike would bring in about $500 million. The gas tax hike would be used to prevent toll hikes, MBTA fare increases, fund regional road and bridge projects -- all glaring transportation needs. Whatever is left over could be used for the state's other pressing needs such as education, public safety and human services. Not to mention local aid.

We've been down this road not all that long ago. And that is part of the reason we are here again today. To solve the last transportation funding crisis, lawmakers earmarked a penny of the current sales tax for the MBTA, a move that has helped fuel the problem because tax receipts did not meet projections.

Now we expect to split that extra $750 million among the MBTA, the Turnpike Authority, MassHighway and who know where else and think it will make a serious dent in the transportation problem and the shortfalls caused by the steepest recession since the Great Depression?

Maybe it's psychological -- one penny instead of 19 pennies per gallon. But lawmakers should think long and hard about that tactic. Do they really think the anti-tax foes will shrink from calling it a 20 percent increase?

And what about the regressive nature of the tax -- one that will hit everyone not matter the size of the income or the size of their gas tank. Republicans generally favor user fees, which is what a gas tax amounts to.

And the obvious downsides -- driving dipped when prices soared (although declining T ridership suggests the car will always win out). But all sales are plummeting, merchants are closing up. It was the recession-driven loss that is at the root of the MBTA's problems (that and bad management).

Lawmakers are obviously looking for the simplest solution for when they face voters. Higher gasoline taxes, a sweets and soda tax, local option levies and the like provide too many targets for them to defend.

A 20 percent increase in the sales tax makes a dent in one of our problems -- and leaves the rest twisting in the wind. Funds for schools, police, fire and local services would be restored when the economic tailspin ends -- but at what cost?

The debate should be about what is best for Massachusetts residents, not job security for 200 people. Lawmakers need to think very carefully and not opt for the easy way out. That is a legislative tradition, one which always seems to move the problem forward to the next crisis.

Let's get it right the first time for a change.

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Blogger Rob said...

I do agree with you that the gas tax needs to be raised, but we have to remember that a large portion of state (west of Boston) is very opposed to that and arguably hits them harder. A sales tax is easier to sell for the Legislature on an equity front.

April 23, 2009 6:19 PM  

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