Chip Ford's CLT Commentary
My goodness, surprise surprise, it's back: another
gas tax hike. We've been waiting for it. We knew it was
coming. We weren't sure quite when, but soon certainly. It
is late summer when nobody is yet paying attention and this sort of
thing can make it through without a whole lot of scrutiny or public
input. [See: CLT News Release, Aug. 29, "Preliminary
report on 'temporary' gas tax increase to pay for Mass. infrastructure"]
It's no big surprise that
Michael Widmer, his so-called
Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, and all the fat-cat businesses
that fund him are behind taxing you and me smucks more. Widmer
is in the business of sticking
it to us lunch-bucket taxpayers. That's how it works, if we let
Someone leaked the gas tax hike out of the
"commission" to the press back in October of 2006, no doubt to catch a feel from
the public and the media. We've been watching it since. This
is not news -- only recently created news out of the semi-secret
CLT NEWS RELEASE
October 9, 2006
From CLT: Your source for institutional memory
Gas tax increase? Somebody has to be kidding!
October 17, 2006
leads tax-and-spenders' push for gas tax hike
Wow, what a surprise that the fat-cat business
community is proposing a gas tax increase, and some arcane toll
increases and creations. We wonder if those same fat-cats will provide
their employees with optional commuter time to get to and from work? Stand tall,
Nothing we taxpayers provide this state government
will ever produce better roads and safer bridges -- obviously -- until we
collectively decide to elect legislators who will in a majority care
about our safety and lives. It's that simple. No amount of
taxpayer revenue will ever secure our safety and lives until enough of
those we elect honestly care more for our safety and
our lives than about advancement of themselves and the silly Beacon
Hill games that get and keep them there.
Will we eventually be the unwitting
cattle marched down the chute to have our skulls crushed by the mallet
to eventually create hamburg, atop or beneath a failing bridge?
The Boston Herald
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Report eyes rush-hour toll hike
By Casey Ross
Motorists on Interstate 93 and other state highways would face tolls
with jacked-up rush-hour fees under recommendations in a confidential
draft report from a legislative commission, the Herald has learned.
The tolls and a short-term hike in the gas tax are being touted as
solutions to the state’s massive transportation funding gap.
Sources with knowledge of a preliminary version of the critical report
say long-term changes could include introduction of new tolls on
Interstate 93 and other highways, as well as more precise methods of
charging motorists based on the time of day and distance they travel.
The draft report, produced by the Transportation Finance Commission,
also indicates that hiking the gas tax could provide a badly needed
revenue boost in the short term, but would be much less helpful in
future years as hybrid vehicles and other technologies reduce gasoline
The sources cautioned that the report’s recommendations are still fluid
and may change before its official release, but said the commission is
offering solutions that could fundamentally alter the way the state pays
for transportation over the next 20 years.
“Not all the recommendations may be equally acceptable to people, and
others may have to make alternative decisions,” said one source. “But we
don’t want to see our resources simply wither away over time.”
Last winter, the commission, which was created by the Legislature,
released an initial report that revealed a $15 billion to $19 billion
deficit in state funding needed to maintain existing transportation
facilities over the next 20 years.
Among the key recommendations being contemplated are:
Creating new tolls across the state’s highway system to make the state’s
bridges and roads part of a more “user-based” system. That change is
envisioned as a longer-term solution that would help ease the inequity
faced by Mass Pike motorists who are now the only ones to pay tolls.
Instituting a so-called “congestion” pricing model similar to one used
in London that requires people to pay higher tolls for driving at rush
hour. That is also considered a longer-term solution that would have to
be implemented over several years.
Stopping the practice of borrowing money to pay for annual operating
costs such as employee salaries and basic tasks such as mowing, which is
currently a major problem at the Massachusetts Highway Department.
Slashing costs for sky-high employee pensions and health benefits, as
well as curtailing the use of police details on state maintenance
The chairman of the finance commission, Stephen Silveira, would not
discuss the contents of the draft report or its precise recommendations.
“We’ve been saying all along that we’re looking at the cost side and the
revenue side,” Silveira said.
The Boston Herald
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Report takes toll on commuters
By Marie Szaniszlo
A higher gas tax? Tolls on more roads? And higher tolls just to drive
during rush hour?
A state legislative commission may find any of its suggestions hard to
sell, even if they would help fill Massachusetts’ gaping transportation
The recommendations, detailed in a confidential draft of the
Transportation Finance Commission’s upcoming report and outlined in
yesterday’s Herald, provoked outrage among many commuters.
“The people this will hit the hardest are working people, who need to
move farther from Boston just to find affordable housing,” said Carol
Hilbinger, who commutes to her job in the city from Haverhill.
Nancy Carrigan of Brighton had some recommendations of her own:
“Eliminate all the tolls plus all the authorities, jobs and special
benefits that accompany these agencies.”
“You have to get rid of the ridiculous salaries and perks some
government employees get first, otherwise people will rightfully think
they’re being scammed,” said Barbara Anderson, executive director
of Citizens for Limited Taxation.
But others said nothing should be taken off the table if the state is to
come up with the additional $15 billion to $19 billion the commission
estimated Massachusetts would need over the next 20 years just to
maintain its existing infrastructure.
“A number of these proposals are worth exploring because not only will
they generate the revenue ... to keep our transportation system
functioning, they will also provide incentives to use public transit,
reduce traffic congestion and curb global warming pollution,” said
Carrie Russell of the Conservation Law Foundation.
“We, as a state, have to consider every option,” said Eric Bourassa, a
consumer advocate at MASSPIRG.
The Boston Herald
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Highwaymen take their toll:
They’ll drive us to poorhouse
By Michael Graham
“The Democratic House leadership yesterday agreed
to plug last year’s budget deficit with a
temporary, 18-month hike in the state’s income tax.”
- Boston Herald, July 4, 1989
Here we go again.
First we had the “temporary” tolls on the Mass Pike to cover the 30-year
bonds issued in 1952.
Then there was the “temporary, 18-month hike in the state’s income tax”
in 1989. [a
CLT PDF file]
And now, according to Casey Ross’ story in yesterday’s Herald, our “Lucy
Van Pelt” Legislature is counting on voters to have another Charlie
Brown moment as they pick up the “temporary tax hike” football yet
This time it’s a “short-term” gas tax, reportedly in the
9-cents-a-gallon range. That’s about $270 million a year out of our
pockets. To be paid for by money left under your pillow each night by
the Toll Fairy. Honest. Would the Legislature lie to you?
The temporary gas tax is just one new idea from sticky-fingered state
pols. Another is to add tolls to I-93, and then start increasing all
tolls during rush hour. The premise of so-called “congestion pricing” is
that just because hard-working taxpayers pay for the roads doesn’t mean
we should be allowed to use them when we need them.
That costs extra.
Every element of the latest tax-’n-toll trial balloon is offensive, but
most offensive is the idea that you and I aren’t paying enough into the
Mass Highways system as it is.
Dr. David Hartgen doesn’t agree. In June, the Reason Foundation released
his report comparing road costs and spending state by state. To make the
comparisons fair, he broke down the numbers to the costs per mile of
state-controlled road. What did he find?
“Massachusetts has one of the very highest road budgets per mile of any
state in the country,” Hartgen told me yesterday. “You also have one of
the smallest state-controlled systems -- only about 3,300 miles. There
are 48 other states that would die for your budget.”
When you add up all the tolls, taxes, bonds and federal bucks that go to
Massachusetts roads, it works out to $753,892 per mile. That’s higher
than every state except New Jersey, and its numbers are skewed by the
fact that it’s the only state entirely covered in concrete.
To put Massachusetts in perspective, Rhode Island -- also in the top 10
in road revenue collection -- gets just $365,624 per mile, and New
Hampshire collects a modest $103,000 per.
The spending side is even worse. Massachusetts is also ranked second in
per-mile spending on state-controlled roads at $893,236 a mile. New
Hampshire spends just $88,191 per mile. For every dollar New Hampshire
spends on a mile of road, we spend 10.
None of this includes the approximately $710 million in automobile
excise taxes we pay each year, which (theoretically) fund local road
You may have noticed that Massachusetts spends about $100,000 more per
mile than we take in. That might explain why Mass Highway is borrowing
money to pay for roadside mowing and other basic operating expenses.
Hartgen notes that about 40 percent of our road taxes go to bonds and
debt service, one of the highest percentages in the country.
Before we slap on a “temporary” gas tax to already sky-high gas prices,
why don’t we try a temporary freeze on new boondoggle projects, like the
New Bedford rail line? How about a temporary end to the ridiculous
policy of mandatory police details at every pothole? How about doing
something to roll back the tide of tax dollars we’re already pouring
into the highway system -- temporarily?
What we desperately need on Beacon Hill is a short-term flash of fiscal
responsibility and common sense.
Michael Graham is a 96.9 WTKK FM talk host.
The Boston Herald
Thursday, August 30, 2007
A Boston Herald editorial
Highway pile-up will hit the wallet
Higher gas taxes, higher tolls, tolls on roads that don’t even have
tolls now -- help!
Ah, yes, another legislative commission has drafted yet another report
and the preliminary results are that -- and why should we not be
surprised -- we’re simply not paying enough. Toll takers on the
Massachusetts Turnpike get $65,000 a year along with health and pension
benefits most mere mortals only dream about, so let’s create more of
them, along with more toll booths and then sit back see what happens.
OK, it’s just another report that supposedly was aimed at addressing an
anticipated $15 billion to $19 billion funding gap between all those
transportation projects we either already have built or want to build
and our current ability to pay for them. It, of course, ignores the
exceedingly quaint notion that maybe we shouldn’t start things we can’t
afford to finish.
Sources have told Herald reporter Casey Ross that while the report
supports a hike in the gasoline tax as a short-term solution, it also
acknowledges the reality that hybrid cars and other new technologies
will eventually have their impact on that. But tolls, including possible
tolls on Interstate 93 and/or increased tolls for peak-period (that
would be rush hour) driving would indeed be the gift that keeps on
In fairness, the report of the Transportation Finance Commission is
expected to recommend a halt to the fiscally insane practice of paying
for current operations (like salaries and the mowing of highway
greenspaces) through bonds -- a practice the Patrick administration has
already made some efforts to curb. And it reportedly suggests cutting
such costs as pensions, health care benefits and police details. (We can
hardly wait to hear the yelling if the commission has the temerity to
suggest use of minimum wage flagmen for repair work as opposed to police
Somehow when commissions do their thing, it’s always the “revenue
raising” that gets advanced on Beacon Hill and the cost-cutting that
ends up on the scrap heap. Would it be too much to hope that this time
the cost-cutting comes first?
-- BLASTS FROM THE PAST --
The Boston Globe
August 4, 1991
Gas tax not used for road repairs
By Peter J. Howe
A year after state officials approved a 91 percent gasoline tax
increase, overcoming fierce antitax opposition by promising that the
increase would fund greatly expanded highway and bridge repairs,
Massachusetts motorists have little to show for it.
Most of the increased gas tax revenue has been hoarded as a bookkeeping
device to make the state's deficits look lower. Only a fraction of the
extra income the tax increase generated has gone back out for highway
resurfacing and bridge reconstruction. On paper, the state's highway
fund has built up a $160 million surplus in the past year. And with the
Weld administration set to announce a severely reduced capital spending
program this week, the legislator who did more than any other to get the
gasoline tax increase passed is now threatening to seek to repeal it.
Rep. Stephen J. Karol (D-Attleboro), chairman of the Legislature's Joint
Transportation Committee, said that Weld's threatened reductions in
transportation spending are so deep that he would have no more
justification to give taxpayers for having led the fight to raise the
gasoline tax from 11 cents a gallon last July to 21 cents a gallon since
"The kind of program they're talking about doing is so limited that we
don't need any of the gas tax increase to pay for it," Karol said. "If
they're going to go through with this, we should repeal the gas tax
increase. We don't need a 21-cent gas tax for the administration just to
siphon it into the general fund to hide the deficit. That's a charade."
While dollars from gas stations pour into the state highway fund, road
and bridge projects must nevertheless compete with all other state
construction projects -- including housing, prisons, environmental
cleanups and open-space purchases -- to squeeze under the $925 million
annual capital spending cap. Gov. Michael Dukakis imposed that cap two
years ago to curb the state deficit and control soaring debt-service
Weld administration officials have determined that they must reduce that
cap even further, probably to about $600 million to $700 million,
because of the state's continuing fiscal woes.
In the field of transportation, officials were planning on spending $375
million this year in state funds for road and bridge repairs, the
Central Artery-Third Harbor Tunnel project and aid to cities and towns
for local street repairs. Many projects are eligible for matching
federal funds. But state spending for transportation may be cut to as
low as $240 million by Peter Nessen, secretary of administration and
finance, to meet the overall state capital spending cap.
Since Jan. 1, because of the cap, transportation spending has been
severely pinched. As of last week, the state Department of Public Works
had awarded only $119 million in construction contracts, even though it
had hoped to put out $400 million worth of non-Artery contracts in 1991.
The tax on gasoline generated $464.2 million in income for the state in
the fiscal year that ended last June 30. In the 11 full months since the
gas tax increases took effect in two stages, a total of $187.1 million
of that revenue came from the increase in the gasoline tax rate.
But state comptroller William Kilmartin said that, over the past year,
the balance in the state highway fund has increased by about $160
million because of income outstripping spending. The highway fund
supports the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the State
Police, state wildlife protection and other programs in addition to
In September, much of the highway fund surplus will be transferred to
the general fund as a bookeeping measure to close the books on fiscal
1991 in balance, Kilmartin said. As a result, political leaders such as
Karol and groups who fought for the gas tax increase now feel they have
nothing to show for it.
One particularly bitter group is the Construction Industries of
Massachusetts, a trade association representing virtually all the
contractors that handle state transportation projects.
The group, representing a generally conservative collection of business
people, lobbied intensively for the increase. It agreed to support the
colossally unpopular billion-dollar income tax increase that accompanied
the higher gas tax, and even joined with liberal groups to help lead the
fight against referendum Question 3, which would have rolled taxes back
to 1988 levels.
"We're disappointed, we're frustrated, we're angry," said Patricia
Mikes, chief lobbyist for the group. "We sold that tax increase on the
basis that people could be assured the money would, in fact, fix the
roads and bridges. Sure, it's a matter of self-interest for our members,
but it's also an issue of improved safety and helping the economy."
T.J. Andre, director of public and governmental affairs for the state's
900,000-member American Automobile Association chapter, said: "The
bottom line is that that money ought to be used for that intended
purpose. A broken promise is a broken promise. Give the taxpayers what
you promised when you voted to increase their taxes, and let's get some
But Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for
Limited Taxation, responded with cynicism, saying: "Was there
anybody out there who actually believed that the gas tax increase was
going to go to roads and bridges? I'd love to see a picture of him. I'd
love to see what a perfect, naive fool looks like."
Michael Swanson, chief engineer of the state Department of Public Works,
said: "We don't feel good about the situation. We're proceeding as
vigorously as we can, trying to get these jobs ready for advertising and
out the door. Yes, there are surpluses in the highway fund and they're
not being drawn on because of the fiscal condition of the commonwealth."
With transportation construction plans likely to face a severe crunch
because of the lowered cap on capital spending, Transportation Secretary
Richard L. Taylor and Public Works Commissioner James J. Kerasiotes are
lobbying Nessen intensively to allow them to issue "special obligation
bonds" backed by the gasoline tax.
Use of such bonds, which would not be affected by the general obligation
debt cap, would allow the state to proceed with hundreds of
road-building projects that might otherwise be delayed and allow them to
use the huge highway fund surpluses now being bottled up.
Taylor and Kerasiotes are particularly eager for power to spend more
highway fund surplus because on many projects a single state dollar
releases $3 to $9 in federal matching funds.
The Boston Globe
August 6, 1991
Official: Taxpayers were sold a bill of goods on gas levy
By Peter J. Howe
A spokesman for the Weld administration said yesterday that
Massachusetts residents "were sold a bill of goods" when they were told
last summer's 91 percent gasoline tax increase would fund greatly
expanded highway and bridge repairs.
Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Executive Office for Administration
and Finance, said transportation advocates who have accused the state
government of failing to increase spending on highway projects after the
10-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase "don't understand how road and bridge
repairs are financed." The Globe reported on Sunday that most of the
gasoline tax increase has been kept as a bookkeeping device to reduce
the state's operating deficit, not pay for highway projects.
In July 1990, the Dukakis administration and the Legislature moved to
raise the tax motorists pay at the pump for each gallon of gasoline. It
rose from 11 cents to 17 cents that month and to 21 cents on Jan. 1. The
increase has produced $190 million in additional income for the state
since then, but during the same period, the state highway fund surplus
has increased $160 million.
Construction-industry groups and legislative leaders who braved antitax
fervor to win the gas tax increase are angry with both administrations
for not delivering the promised increase in highway repairs.
But Slowey said the Weld administration actually is increasing highway
funding substantially. Slowey said that under current estimates for the
new capital spending cap to be announced this week, the state will
borrow $270 million in 1992 through bonds to pay for highway and bridge
projects, compared with an estimated $205 million this year, $153
million in 1990 and $213 million in 1989.
Slowey said the increase in gas tax income cannot translate to a
dollar-for-dollar increase in state spending for highway projects
because such projects are financed through 20- and 30-year bonds, not
paid for on a straight cash basis.
"Dukakis froze all road and bridge projects in the summer of 1990 to
sell people on the increase in the gas tax," Slowey said. "The previous
administration took advantage of the way people misunderstand how road
and bridge projects are financed."
The Boston Globe
August 11, 1991
Mass. highway fund reality far from original concept
By Peter J. Howe
As a concept, Massachusetts' highway fund sounds like a great idea: By
devoting proceeds from the state gasoline tax, drivers' license fees and
vehicle registration charges to maintaining the state's highways, those
who benefit from the highway network wind up paying for it, roughly in
proportion to how much they use it.
But in the past week, the failings of the highway fund have come under
intensified scrutiny since news broke that last year's 91 percent gas
tax increase has not been earmarked for increased highway repairs, but
has instead apparently been retained in order to offset the state budget
deficit. Since July 1990, the same month the gas tax was nearly doubled,
the balance in the highway fund has soared from $66.5 million to $286.2
million, according to figures from the Executive Office for
Administration and Finance. Under standard practice, much of that amount
will be held to offset other funding deficits so that the state closes
its books on fiscal 1991 in overall balance.
Road builders, organized labor and other highway advocates have charged
Gov. Weld with engaging in the same "fiscal shell game" with the gas tax
for which he regularly blasted Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and State House
Democrats during his campaign. They say the extra $220 million reflects
highway money the state is "raiding" for general operating purposes.
But Weld aides contend Dukakis and the gas tax sponsors essentially lied
to Massachusetts motorists when they assured them in July 1990 that the
10-cent-a-gallon increase could be earmarked for a greatly expanded
program of repairing the state's highways and bridges. And some Weld
aides accuse critics of grossly misunderstanding -- or even willfully
misstating -- how the state pays for highway projects.
Administration and Finance Secretary Peter Nessen said people are
mistaken to think the highway fund is an actual account, like a bank
account, that the state keeps money in. Rather, he said, it is "an
accounting device" the state uses separate from its actual cash drawer.
"The gas tax is like any other source of state income," Nessen said.
"The finances of the commonwealth are really as if there's one fund. I
don't make that distinction among the three" principal funds. Asked why
the state even bothers having a highway fund, Nessen said, "I don't
However, Rep. Stephen J. Karol (D-Attleboro), transportation committee
chairman, said, "If you've painted yourself into the corner that Nessen
has, it's not a bad position to take. He wants to raid the highway fund
for purposes it's not intended for. If I were in the secretary's
position, I would certainly shift the discussion away from what he got
caught doing and try to get a philosophical discussion going about
whether we should have a highway fund."
Regardless of who is right financially, it is clear that the immediate
bonanza in road work Massachusetts residents had been promised with the
near-doubled gas tax has failed to materialize.
The Department of Public Works has had longstanding plans to advertise
$400 million worth of work in 1991. But from Jan. 1 to July 31, the
Department of Public Works advertised just $140 million worth of work,
$100 million of which is actually now under way, according to DPW
spokeswoman Jodi D'Urso.
One point of widespread agreement is that in the five decades since it
was established, the highway fund has drifted far from being a pure
"user fee" system guaranteeing motorists the taxes they pay at the pump
come back to them in the form of improved highways.
The state government has more than two dozen separate funds it uses to
keep its books. But the overwhelming amount of state financial activity
involves the three dominant funds: the general operating fund, the local
aid fund and the highway fund.
The state's 1990 annual fiscal report identifies the highway fund as one
of several "special revenue funds . . . used to account for specific
revenue sources that have been segregated according to state finance law
to support specific governmental activities."
But the connection between the $450 million in annual gas tax revenues
and highway repairs has become badly blurred over the years.
Fifteen percent of gas tax income goes into the general fund. A tiny
fraction -- 0.15 percent -- goes into the Inland Fisheries and Game
Fund. The rest goes into the highway fund. For reasons few current state
officials understand, 19.2 percent of state revenues from the cigarette
tax are also allocated to the highway fund.
The expense side of the highway fund ledger is even more muddied than
the income side. Besides paying some interest on highway bonds and
funding the operations of the Department of Public Works, the highway
fund also pays for 20 percent of the state subsidy to the Massachusetts
Bay Transportation Authority and other transit agencies.
It also covers certain positions scattered throughout state government
-- in the treasury, Revenue Department, Metropolitan District
Commission, insurance division, State Police, attorney general and
district attorneys' offices. Generally, these positions involve people
who collect the gas tax itself, patrol highways, monitor auto insurance,
prosecute traffic offenders or otherwise have something to do with
Many highway advocates have argued that with all the new money pouring
in from the gas tax -- $200 million more a year -- the Weld
administration could have dramatically stepped up issuance of highway
bonds and put out far more work this year. Also, they said, the state
could have begun paying for some smaller, routine projects, such as
bridge repainting and repaving, on a cash basis instead of borrowing
Nessen said the major misunderstanding of people complaining about the
"highway fund surplus" is that highway projects are traditionally not
paid for on a cash basis from tax revenues, but by issuing 20- and
30-year bonds. Using bonds can effectively allow the state to do 10
times as many projects, Nessen said, so immediately paying out increased
cash from the higher gas tax would have bought far less road and bridge
Because of the cap on capital spending imposed during the past two years
of the state budget crisis, Nessen said, increasing spending on highways
would have forced reductions in all other areas, including prison
expansion, environmental cleanups and other areas.
However, legislative leaders accused the administration of refusing to
use a tool the Legislature provided to help highway projects avoid being
clamped by the cap.
When it voted overwhelmingly to increase the gasoline tax from 11 cents
a gallon to 21 cents, the Legislature included two measures intended to
ensure that the increase would be devoted solely to transportation
It designated that 47.62 percent of the gas tax proceeds -- exactly the
amount of the increase -- would go to an "Infrastructure Fund" within
the highway fund for the costs of highway and mass-transit improvements.
Also, the gas tax increase included a measure allowing the state to sell
so-called special obligation bonds backed by infrastructure fund
proceeds. While the state's general obligation securities were teetering
on the edge of "junk bond" status, it was widely believed that
Massachusetts bonds guaranteed a fairly predictable stream of income
from the gas tax could sell far better on Wall Street. It is disputed
whether use of this infrastructure fund is therefore specifically
restricted to paying off highway and transit- extension bonds.
Nessen said he believes special obligation bonds are "absolutely the
wrong way to go" and serve only to "squeeze out of the bond-cap
In what he said is proof the Weld administration is hewing to the spirit
of the gas tax increase, Nessen noted that Weld's new five-year capital
plan calls for a steady increase in state highway projects from $153
million in fiscal 1990 to $273 million this year and $349 million in
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