and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
October #2

Proposed increase in gas tax deserves a resounding 'No!'
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thurssday, October 12, 2006

The Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission wants a 9-cents-a-gallon increase in the state gas tax to fix our roads and bridges.

Thank you, Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission, for all the time you spent "studying" the state infrastructure and for sharing your opinion. Here is my response: "No!"

Now go away, as other Boston business-backed commissions, with their "connected" Boston business leaders that recommend tax hikes on middle-class working people, have gone away. We middle-class working people outnumber you, and have more votes to deliver to legislators.

Last year at this time, another Boston business group, known as the Hamill Commission for its chairman, former Sovereign Bank CEO John Hamill, recommended increasing the auto excise and the local meals tax. We said, "No, go away." And it did.

Of course, it helps when we have a governor who will veto any new taxes. The Legislature is happy to override spending vetoes and reforms, but the required two-thirds roll-call vote can still be a deterrent to a tax hike.

It's interesting to me that the "no new taxes" pledge is a clear signal to the Legislature, but not to the business leaders on these commissions. Politicians understand that another politician who has taken the pledge cannot break it; business leaders don't understand this.

Is this how they run their businesses? A promise means nothing? How about a handshake?

Follow me back through my institutional memory, which kicked in when I saw the name of the Transportation Finance Commission member who is actively recommending the gas tax increase. Harold Hestnes is described as a "longtime Republican civic leader" as in, "even Republicans know we need this tax hike," which is meant to give cover to Democrats.

In November 1990, the headline read, "Weld adviser weighs limited tax hike." Hestnes was Bill Weld's law partner at Hale & Dorr during his first run for governor in 1990. One week after Weld won, pledging "no new taxes" to the entire commonwealth, Hestnes suggested a tax increase package that would repeal the Dukakis sales tax on business and professional services and increase the general sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent.

With considerable popular support, Weld did get the sales tax on services repealed, but said "no" to the sales tax increase. To the best of my recollection, Hestnes wasn't heard from again on tax policy - until now.

Go away again, Harold. And please, this time take the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation - which WRKO's Scott Allen Miller calls the "Massachusetts Taxhike Foundation" - with you. Its executive director, Michael Widmer, was on the Hamill Commission and is presently on the Transportation Finance Commission. MTF set up the gas-tax recommendation by releasing a report last week about the dire condition of the commonwealth's roads, bridges and transit systems.

My institutional memory knows something about that alleged dire condition. When the Big Dig was first proposed, the Massachusetts Municipal Association and others asked if its cost would divert money from other state infrastructure projects. The Dukakis administration said it would not.

We were told that since the federal government was paying 90 percent of the project's cost, the state could easily handle the other 10 percent without hurting other state roads and bridges. The concerns of those of us who argued that the feds' 90 percent contribution wasn't certain were cavalierly dismissed.

And then the Big Dig ended up sucking up all the local infrastructure money after all. The feds got fed up and cut back on their share of the cost. And, according to this MTF report, local roads and bridges have suffered. Surprise!

The Romney administration instituted its "Fix It First" program in 2003, which has increased the capital allotment for non-Big Dig projects from $600 million then to $900 million today - without lifting the bond cap that MTF wants lifted. Banks like loaning money to the state, whose taxpayers back up the loans.

Read on and learn, Big Business. The present state gas tax is already above the national average. The money is supposed to be used for highway maintenance, but in reality is often diverted. The Dukakis 10-cents-a-gallon increase in 1990 was used to reduce the state's operating deficit. Politicians deliberately defer maintenance, figuring that if they are short of money for their own pet projects, they have "the infrastructure excuse" to raise taxes. And you guys fall for it every time.

Further, Massachusetts is one of the few states in the nation that has an auto excise, which is supposed to be used to maintain roads. How do other states have better roads than ours when we have all these taxes?

Frank Conte, director of communications at the Beacon Hill Institute, argues that we should place the proposed gas tax in the context of government's incompetence.

"This" he says, "is the equivalent of the fable of the boy who murders his parents and asks clemency as an orphan." The state kills its local infrastructure, then wants merciful taxpayers to let it off the hook.

No. Or at least, the answer will be "no" until Massachusetts voters are foolish enough to elect a governor who hasn't taken the "no new taxes" pledge.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Lowell Sun, Providence [RI] Journal and other newspapers.