Plenty of money, it's common sense that's lacking
© by Barbara Anderson
The Salem News
Thursday, August 9, 2007
It's August and there's still plenty of time to relax in the hammock ...
and I was on my way there when Governor Patrick announced his
$12-billion infrastructure and education spending plan, for which he is
raising the state debt ceiling.
So instead, I responded to calls from reporters, did interviews with Fox
25 and Channel 4 news, was awakened two mornings to discuss the issue
with Peter Blute on WCRN and Michael Graham on WTKK, and am doing this
column on the subject of infrastructure.
More to the personal point, Chip Ford and I went into Boston Monday
night to a dinner sponsored by Grover Norquist's
Americans for Tax Reform in
conjunction with the National Conference of State Legislatures taking
place this week. He drove while I watched for holes, leaks and falling
ceiling panels in the bridges and tunnels.
We have been here before. And regardless of how much Patrick borrows and
spends, we will be here again. As the
Institute says in "Our Legacy of Neglect," its recently-released
paper on government infrastructure: "Every new structure that is built,
every road that is paved, every new asset the Commonwealth builds is
doomed to decay prematurely, through a lack of maintenance."
Come with me back to the future; in this case, the spring of 1984.
A bridge had recently collapsed in Connecticut and governors across the
country were checking their own bridges to see if they were OK. Our
governor, Michael Dukakis, discovered that despite the 500-percent
increase in state spending over the previous 20 years, the
commonwealth's infrastructure was in dire straits and we were all in
His plan was to create a new semi-autonomous agency, called MassBank,
that could float its own bonds with a guaranteed revenue stream from new
business taxes. I was in Gardner Auditorium at the Statehouse on the day
of the hearing before the Taxation Committee, watching Dukakis
administration staffers dragging in chunks of concrete from a damaged
bridge to show the committee -- whose members rolled their eyes in
Some of us opponents argued that maintenance of infrastructure should be
a priority of basic state government. The late Warren Brookes of
Marblehead wrote in his Boston Herald column that revenues from existing
taxes from the motor fuels excise, motor vehicle sales tax and registry
fees, had increased nearly 100 percent from 1980 to 1985, but the
highway fund into which they were supposed to go had increased by only
As with some of the new governor's bright ideas, so far, the Legislature
put on the brakes and MassBank didn't pass. Dukakis would probably argue
today that if it had, our bridges and roads would be in good shape.
This might be worth considering if the same former governor hadn't told
us that his next bright idea, the Big Dig, wouldn't divert funds from
other state and local road and bridge projects. Everyone knew at the
time that wasn't true, but there was no way to prove it; the digging
began a few years after Dukakis told the Taxation Committee that without
MassBank, "I don't believe that I as governor ... can guarantee the
public safety and environmental health of the people of this
commonwealth much longer."
Yes, I took notes and kept press clippings to be ready for the next
time, which is now.
The state budget has more than tripled since 1984. Our tax burden, per
capita, is fourth highest in the nation; our debt is second highest.
Having lots of tax money to spend doesn't keep government from having to
borrow: spending is an addiction that always requires another fix, and
if you can't get enough from taxpayers, you borrow it with a promise to
somehow tax more later to pay it back.
One of the reasons for the gas tax increase in 1990 was to help with
infrastructure maintenance. At the local level, we are one of four
states that have an annual auto excise tax, which should be used for
roads and bridges. But cities and towns have their own poor record of
maintenance, not as much with roads as with schools. (Once the state
started the "school building assistance fund," it was more fun to just
let the old buildings deteriorate and get in line for money with which
to build new ones.)
I suspect that one reason that some communities do a better job than the
state with their road infrastructure is that angry citizens with pothole
damage know whom to call. Mayors and selectmen can be seen around town.
We might have better luck with our state infrastructure if we called our
state legislators and the governor every time we see an obviously
deteriorating road or bridge, and didn't accept any excuses for not
doing proper maintenance and repair.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens
for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and
Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and
Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the
Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.