having the fourth-highest per-capita tax burden and the highest debt
in the nation, we still can’t afford our state transportation
system. Wouldn’t you think that infrastructure, which is one major
reason we have government, would be a priority for spending already
And yet, every few
years, we hear it again: roads and bridges crumbling, public
transportation running on empty, what to do? Hand-wringing public
officials and Big Business leaders get together, offer us a choice
of various tax, fee and toll plans, and hope we dumb marks will buy
promises of better management one more time.
The state Department of
Transportation (MassDOT) has just released the latest
“transportation funding plan,” which includes a menu of possible tax
hikes and “potential” reforms. Gov. Deval Patrick watches the public
response to his trial balloon as he prepares for tonight’s State of
the State address.
The game never changes:
We get to argue among ourselves as to which tax/fee proposals we
dislike the least and might accept, and prove ourselves fools and
enablers once again.
A recent poll showed
that 83 percent of those polled don’t want a 15-cent increase in the
state gas tax. So the governor is floating a 30-cent increase. Wow,
that makes a 15-cent increase look almost reasonable!
This month, the usual
list of tax hikers meets at the Statehouse to urge an increase in
the income tax rate to 5.95 percent. Now the transportation
financing plan floats a possible 5.66 percent rate. Wow, so much
better than 5.95 percent!
Never mind that the
voters, angry that they were still paying the 1989 “temporary”
income tax hike, rolled back the rate to its traditional 5 percent
on the 2000 ballot. The Legislature froze it at 5.3 percent in 2002,
but we’ve since re-elected most of the legislators who kicked us in
the teeth. They eventually allowed a small reduction to 5.25 percent
last year, for which we were really, pathetically, grateful!
How about the sales tax
instead? In 2000, the Legislature agreed to earmark 20 percent of
sales tax revenue for public transportation, increased the
traditional rate from 5 percent to 6.25 percent in 2009. The
transportation finance plan floats a 7.75 percent sales tax rate
because the MBTA is, as noted above, deep in debt doo-doo again
Other ideas are a 0.16
percent payroll tax (on top of the federal payroll tax increase we
just found in our paychecks) and increased fees, including an $86
increase in license renewal fees!
And if Gov. Patrick
doesn’t choose your preferred new revenue source, don’t feel
rejected. As long as we enablers accept any taxes before reforms,
they’ll be back for the others eventually. The transportation system
still won’t be funded. The MBTA will still be in debt. Our state
government will have tricked us once again.
Let me count just the
lies I’ve been around to observe:
1. Voters were
asked on the 1974 ballot to allow highway tax use for mass
transit; they were told this would not impact necessary spending
on highways. Voters, including me, bought that fantasy, said OK.
2. I was at a news
conference in the late ’80s when the Dukakis administration was
asked about the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s concern
that the Big Dig would take money from other state and local
highway projects. The answer was no, it would not.
3. We were told
that the Big Dig would cost around $3 billion. Actual cost was
$22 billion, including interest and not counting necessary
repairs that have already begun.
4. In 1990, the
Dukakis administration raised the gas tax 10 cents per gallon,
allegedly to pay for highway maintenance and repair. Voters
rejected a ballot question to repeal this and other Dukakis tax
hikes. In 1991, it was discovered that the gas tax money was
used to reduce the state deficit instead of for highways.
5. Voters later
rejected a ballot question to repeal “temporary” tolls on the
Massachusetts Turnpike because they were told the alternative
was a gas tax increase, which is being floated now anyhow, along
with toll hikes.
there was yet another of the executive department consolidations
that are done when officials want to look like they are doing
something, then you find out that there are the same number of
employees, and each of the agencies under the new umbrella have
their own human resource departments, purchasing departments,
It’s now 2013, the
highways are still not adequately funded, the MBTA is in debt, and
the state expects us to trust it again with more of our money. Fool
me once, shame on you. Fool me over and over, what am I, really
transportation plan. Do the reforms first. My favorites are the
recommendations for “more performance management within DOT” and “a
modernized asset-management system.” And be sure to do “changes to
MBTA retirement eligibility.”
Here are other reforms
not being discussed. Do an independent audit of MassDOT, tell us
where all the money raised by the gas tax for the state Highway Fund
goes. Repeal the state Prevailing Wage Law, which increases the cost
of infrastructure projects by making both public and private
contractors pay the prevailing union wage. New Hampshire repealed
this law in 1985 and has saved millions while maintaining its roads
better than Massachusetts does.
When the reforms are
done, get back to me about higher taxes, fees and tolls. Who knows?
If we try actually managing our transportation system, we may no
longer need them.