Governor Expands the Options for Billion-Dollar Transportation Investment

Last week, the Governor proposed an income tax rate increase, and so focused political attention on that controversial proposition. In fact, he put a much broader package before the legislature.

Last week, the Governor proposed a substantial income tax rate increase, and so focused political attention — positive and negative — on that simple and controversial proposition.

In fact, however, he placed before the legislature a broad package which raises three major questions: First, should we make a substantial increase in spending on our transportation system? The answer to that question is clear: We just can’t put it off any longer. A host of independent observers have studied the issue and reached the same conclusion.

It is also clear that we can’t cut our way out of the transportation deficit. We have cut both pensions and health care for both MBTA and state employees and this year we are going to make a further big cut in health care benefits for future state retirees. The Senate President is proposing further welfare reforms. But no one who is close to the numbers believes that further reforms can free up an appreciable part of the additional $1 billion per year that we need to plow into transportation infrastructure.

There is a second question raised by the Governor’s proposal: Should we make a substantial increase in education spending? Education at all levels in Massachusetts could benefit from additional resources. In fact, however, a host of other state and local government functions could also benefit from additional resources. I feel personally responsible, as a legislator, for the meningitis and drug lab scandals in public health. And where is the next neglected 22-year-old loner with his finger on a trigger? For too long, we have been asking many critical state agencies to make do with inadequate resources.

As clear as the needs are, we do not have the clear consensus for substantially increased spending in education or any of the other needy service areas that we have for a transportation increase. The specific consensus for approximately $1 billion in additional annual transportation infrastructure spending has been painstakingly built over the past decade and that kind of careful work just hasn’t been done yet in other spending areas.

The final question raised by the Governor’s proposal is: If we should ask this year for more of our citizens’ money for transportation and/or education and/or other public purposes, how should we do it? The Governor proposes to fill most of the gap with an income tax rate increase, and, in fact, to drive the necessary rate increase higher by simultaneously cutting the sales tax. Most of us in the legislature have so far been thinking about how to raise money for transportation in ways that tie more closely to use of transportation — the gas tax, fares, fees, tolls, or some kind of regional levy.

Two things I really like about the Governor’s proposal are (a) eliminating a host of little tax breaks for individuals and replacing them with (b) a substantial increase in the personal exemption to benefit low and moderate income workers. I also appreciate his proposal to permanently dedicate a particular revenue stream (sales tax) to transportation.

The Governor has opened a very wide set of options for the legislature to consider and consider we shall over the months to come.  I welcome your thoughts on these issues at william.brownsberger@masenate.gov or 617-722-1280 or at my forum website -- willbrownsberger.com.

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