"[Auto REGISTRATION fees] would generate another $55 million a year. We
need it in the mix."
House Ways and Means Chairman
Paul Haley, (D) Weymouth
"They have one incredible amount of nerve raising fees, tolls and
anything resembling a tax."
The Patriot Ledger
Thursday, February 17, 2000
Digging ourselves into a bigger hole
By Ingrid Shaffer
The recent "news" that the Central Artery/Tunnel project
will cost at least $1.4 billion more than we thought -- bringing the latest price tag to a
new high of $12.2 billion -- suggests that we in Massachusetts live not in the shadow of
the Big Dig, but under the Big Top.
There's a sucker born every minute, think those in charge of The
Greatest Show in Town as they alternately fool and dazzle us with their who's-in-charge
clown act and razzmatazz financial footwork.
Since 1986, when the Central Artery project was first proposed at a
projected cost of $2.6 billion, Boston's own three-ring circus has featured a stupefying
list of managers, consultants, engineers and politicians who played
now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't with tax dollars.
Governor Paul Cellucci is the latest character to wobble out on this
construction behomoth's financial high wire. Formerly known for his
"I-never-met-a-tax-cut-I-didn't-like" act, Cellucci recently joined the
shell-game set by reneging on the state's pledge to all but abolish Motor Vehicle Registry
license renewal fees in 2001 as part of his "insurance policy" to fund the
latest Big Dig cost overruns.
While the governor has admirably maintained support for the upcoming
ballot initiative to roll back state income taxes from 5.75 percent to 5 percent -- as
originally promised when our legislators raised taxes "temporarily" in 1989 --
Cellucci has unfortunately lost heart in the bigger war to reduce the taxpayer burden on
In the fallout from ill-timed Big Dig cost overrun announcements and
construction czar Kerasiotes's recent embarrassing comments in the Wall Street Journal --
he dubbed some Cellucci administration officials "moron(s)" and
"reptile(s)" -- the governor seems to have caved in to the Chicken Little clamor
to grab whatever taxpayer moneys he can -- outside of the income tax -- to assuage the
Central Artery beast.
That means Cellucci now plans to keep the current $33.75 five-year
driver's license renewal fee formerly slated to drop to $2 next year, and to withdraw his
earlier support for an upcoming ballot measure to provide income tax rebates for
automobile excise taxes and tolls.
The state's $45 million gain from retaining license fees and the
estimated $700 million first year savings that would result from passage of an excise and
toll credit package are just too good to forgo, according to Cellucci's latest thinking.
Fortunately, Barbara Anderson, Citizens
for Limited Taxation's tireless tiger for humane treatment of taxpayers,
and Harold Hubschman, spokesman for the Commuter Tax Relief Coalition, are calling the
governor to account on this latest grab for public tribute.
Anderson has threatened to revive a 1989 CLT lawsuit over
unconstitutional fee increases, which was settled out of court with the Weld
administration in 1992. Based on a 1984 Supreme Judicial Court decision (Emerson College
v. City of Boston) which prohibits state agency fees from exceeding the cost of the
service provided, CLT extracted a promise from former Gov. William Weld to eventually
reduce license renewal fees to $2, the cost of providing the service.
The Registry's annual $375 million revenue collection far exceeds its
budget needs of $60 million, in violation of that SJC ruling, contends Anderson. She told
me in a telephone interview that until now, Gov. Cellucci had made "a good faith
effort" to honor the Weld agreement to eventually abolish the "clearly
illegitimate" $45 million in license renewal fees that he now wants to place in the
General Fund for "future public works projects," i.e., the Big Dig.
Anderson added she would "rather not go to court" to force
the governor to halt his fee retention plan, especially as a win for CLT would mean the
state would lose at least $300 million -- the bulk of the Registry's
"illegitimate" revenues -- not just the currently disputed $45 million in
license fees. "And any group -- hairdressers, barbers, any business that is licensed
by the state -- could then use that court case to dismiss their (inflated) fees, as
well," Anderson noted.
Hubschman of the Commuter Tax Coalition voiced similar exasperation
when I spoke to him. He noted that the Fifties-born Mass. Turnpike Authority -- and the
resulting auto tolls -- was originally designed to go out of existence once its bonds were
paid. Instead, new debt is contantly issued, which keeps the Authority alive and the tolls
"legal," to the motorists' outrage. "The magic of 'Authorities' is they
take money off-budget, and out of the Legislature's, or people's control," explains
Hubschman of the placement of the Big Dig under Turnpike Authority management.
The intent of the electorate to abolish Turnpike fees has long been
thwarted and was recently spat upon by Cellucci's finance secretary, Andrew Natsios, who
effectively promised higher tolls to finance higher spending on the Central Artery/Tunnel
The people's only recourse for such treachery is to pass the upcoming
ballot initiative to debit ALL tolls from their state income tax and throw in a credit for
the hated auto excise tax for good measure.
And how do we pay for the looming $1.4 billion shortfall? Certainly
not by agreeing to defer the Legislature's long-promised income tax rollback to 5 percent
and certainly not by sanctioning Cellucci's schemes to retain illegal license fees, hike
tolls, and otherwise maneuver figures so we don't notice we're being fleeced.
Let's instead demand our lawmakers tap the state's mammoth $1.4
billion "Rainy Day" Fund -- our collected tax money that's set aside for
unforeseen expenses -- and utilize some of the coming $8.2 billion federal Tobacco Fund
settlement to bail us out of the Central Artery/Tunnel project's latest funding crisis.
Then let's look again at how we manage the Big Pig, er, Dig.
Ingrid Shaffer's column appears Wednesdays. She can be reached by
e-mail at ShafferCol@aol.com
The Patriot Ledger
Thursday, February 17, 2000
Big Dig bailout building
By Gary Susswein
Patriot Ledger Statehouse Bureau
BOSTON -- Massachusetts drivers who thought they had paid their last
automobile registration fee may have to start paying again to help bail out the Big Dig.
House leaders plan to propose that the state reinstitute the $35
biennial fee that was eliminated in 1999.
The lawmakers say the Big Dig bailout plan that Gov. Paul Cellucci
released this week relies too heavily on borrowing money and should include more fees such
as those for automobile registrations.
Cellucci has already proposed maintaining the the driver's-license
fees but has been silent on registration fees.
"That would generate another $55 million a year," House
Ways and Means Chairman Paul Haley, D-Weymouth, said Wednesday night. "We need it in
Haley's announcement came as administration officials confirmed that
Cellucci's $1.4 billion plan would actually cost the state and Turnpike Authority $2.6
billion because of interest costs to be paid over the next 50 years.
"During the good economic times we should be paying down the
debt, not extending it," said Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, who described the Registry
fees as "a rational solution.
If indeed there are going to be road and bridge projects that will
make for a better ride, we, the people who drive, should be paying for that," she
But the proposal could spark outrage from citizens who have
benefitted from the registration fee savings.
"They have one incredible amount
of nerve raising fees, tolls and anything resembling a tax," said Barbara Anderson of
Citizens for Limited Taxation. "The Registry takes in more fees than it takes to run
the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The rest of it is illegitimate and illegal because a fee
can only be used to provide a specific service."
As part of his bailout, Cellucci has already proposed maintaining the
$33.75 driver's-license fees that were supposed to be eliminated next year. His office
does not know whether he would also embrace the automobile registration fees.
Cellucci has proposed raising some tolls on the Massachusetts
Turnpike in 2001 instead of 2002 as originally planned. Rep. Joseph C. Sullivan of
Braintree, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Wednesday that won't be
Cellucci wants the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to issue or
extend $250 million in bonds that will ultimately be paid off through tolls and other
revenues. The life of the bonds would be extended from 2040 to 2050 under the plan.
The state itself would issue $600 million in bonds, to be paid off
with driver's-license fees and another $150 million to be paid off with federal highway
The rest of the bailout money would come from higher Turnpike tolls
in 2001 and up-front cash payments. Officials have dismissed suggestions that they
introduce limited tolls along the Southeast Expressway.
Secretary of Administration and Finance Andrew Natsios this week
defended the Cellucci plan, saying future generations that will benefit from the Big Dig
construction should help pay for the project.
"When you build a large project, particularly of this size, you
don't take money out of the state treasury," he said. "You borrow the money,
which is what most of this is, and most of what we've done so far to gather that money.
That's how it's done. It's been done for a century in public finance."
Natsios said it makes sense to bond for the Big Dig while still
implementing the administration's proposed $1.1 billion income tax cut since the tax cut
will help maintain a strong economy.
But critics warned Wednesday against spending an extra $1.2 billion
in Big Dig interest to preserve that tax cut. They said the economies of Quincy and other
communities will be hurt by the bonding plan since it will reduce the amount of local
highway aid available.
"This plan is not really a true long-term plan to deal with our
capital needs," said O'Brien. "It really is a partial solution that puts enough
money into the pot to say the problem is solved. But it creates new problems."
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