Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham yesterday torpedoed a House plan to raise
motorists' fees by as much as $100 million a year.
"These fees hit just about everyone," Birmingham said, noting that the
fees for a compact car were the same as those for a limousine.
And "given how strong the economy is I just don't think we need to resort to
raising the fees this year," the Senate president added.
Birmingham's opposition all-but guarantees motorists won't be walloped this year
with massive increases in the fees they pay to renew their car registrations - which is
now free - or update their drivers' licenses.
Gov. Paul Cellucci, who had been expected to veto any increase in Registry of
Motor Vehicles fees, praised Birmingham for blocking the legislation.
"We're glad someone in the Legislature saw the light and realized it was a
ridiculous notion to raise fees at the Registry," Cellucci spokesman Jason Kauppi
House leaders - looking for cash to fund road and bridge projects that are being
neglected to pay for the Big Dig - were pushing to reinstate Registry fees canceled by
then-Gov. William F. Weld during his 1996 Senate campaign.
The House plan would have required car owners to pay $30 every two years to renew
their registration and voided a plan to drop drivers' license renewal fees from $33.75 to
$2 in 2001. The House hikes would have cost motorists $70 million to $100 million a year.
House leaders had planned to put the fee hikes into a massive transportation bond
bill, but senators blocked that idea. On Friday the Legislature's Transportation Committee
approved a trimmed-down bond bill stripped of the fee hikes.
Neither House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran (D-Mattapan) nor his Transportation
Chairman Joseph C. Sullivan (D-Braintree) - both of whom were pushing for the fee hike -
returned calls seeking comment.
Birmingham said he couldn't sign off on increasing Registry fees when the state
was flush with cash and the lawmakers were considering massive tax cuts.
He described the Senate as "almost universally hostile to the notion of
raising (Registry) fees."
Both the House and Senate approved similar fee hikes last year, but leaders
decided not to ask their members to override Cellucci's veto in an election year.
Political observers had expected the Senate to get on board again. And in the non-election
year, lawmakers were expected to bite the bullet and override Cellucci's veto.
But sources said Birmingham didn't want a replay of the politics surrounding
Boston's new convention center. In 1997, Cellucci rejected the convention center bill
because it included tax hikes. Cellucci's rejection forced lawmakers to twice vote for the
unpopular hotel tax used to fund the building. But last month, when it was time to break
ground for the $700 million project, Cellucci was front and center wielding the
Birmingham is tired of "the politics of convenience," said a Senate
source. "Cellucci lobs the grenades and then spends the money."
Birmingham's stand against the fee hikes is likely to be popular with voters if,
as expected, he runs for governor in 2002. But it could draw criticism from municipal
officials and labor unions who were counting on the infusion of cash to fund road and
bridge projects that have been neglected while the state focuses its transportation
dollars on the $11 billion Central Artery-tunnel project.
The Senate president, a Chelsea Democrat, said he was confident the Cellucci
administration could find the money for road projects without the Legislature raising
"That's part of the governor's job," Birmingham said. Since Cellucci
planned to veto the fee hike he should be able "to manage within the necessary
implications of that decision."
Birmingham's opposition to the fee hike puts him on
the same side of the issue as Barbara Anderson and the Citizens for Limited Taxation and
Government, which had been planning to sue the state to block the fee increase.
"Welcome aboard, Tom," said Chip Ford,
director of operations for CLT&G, a group that has often criticized Birmingham for his
claim that the state can't afford to drop the income tax rate from 5.95 to 5 percent.
Birmingham said it was "novel" to be on the same side of an issue with
Anderson. But added, "I don't plan on making a habit of it."