and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
August #2

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 Pioneer 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 danger.

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 unison.

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 53 percent.

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.