Gas tax index foes play fast with facts

Foes are also Herald columnists


Branded at first as a fight against perpetual and unchecked increases in the gas tax, questionable claims from proponents of a ballot question repealing the gas tax inflation indexing law are starting to cloud that message.

Lawmakers and activists hoping to repeal the gas tax indexing law touted their collection last week of more than 100,000 petition signatures as a signal that voters want a chance to repeal the law next year. “We tapped into the fact that this is taxation without representation,” said Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican.

Supporters of repeal have argued that elected officials should be forced to justify and vote on any tax increases they deem necessary, and should not allow taxes to automatically increase based on the rate of inflation.

But following the press conference outside the State House last Thursday, an argument erupted between transportation funding advocates and a Republican strategist and Boston Herald columnist working for repeal over whether the ballot question would “cut” funding for transportation. In recent days, that argument has spilled from a Beacon Street sidewalk onto the Boston radio airwaves and social media.

Holly Robichaud, who works at Tuesday Associates and [writes a column for the Herald in which she has criticized the gas tax hike], shouted at members of Transportation for Massachusetts, a pro-transportation-investment coalition, calling them “liars” after they handed out press releases stating that repeal of the indexing would cut funding for transportation.

Robichaud claimed that gas tax revenues, which were boosted over the summer when the Legislature passed the law raising the gas tax by three cents and indexing future increases to inflation, went into the state’s General Fund, and were not earmarked for transportation.

In fact, since 2009 gas tax revenues have been deposited into a separate account called the Commonwealth Transportation Fund, and earmarked specifically for transportation projects. Prior to 2009, gas tax revenues were funneled into a dedicated highway fund.

When challenged about her statements on Monday, Robichaud said, “They go into the general fund.” Asked why she would continue saying that despite being presented with contrary evidence, she said, “Because it does just go into the General Fund.”

Robichaud produced a news article from September 2010 that she said supported her claims, but that article referenced how the Legislature would sometimes tap into a fund for underground storage tank removal for other purposes. The underground storage tank removal program had been financed through an additional 2.5 cent surcharge on a gallon of gas above and beyond the 24-cent gas tax, but those fees once deposited into the General Fund were also swept by the 2013 transportation financing law into the Commonwealth Transportation Fund.

“Any claim that that money isn’t for transportation is simply not true,” said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer. “As you well know, the transportation financing law had a lot of moving pieces, but the clearest new transportation funding going to transportation are the taxes on gas and the gas tax indexing.”

Still, Robichaud’s claims have picked up steam. Rep. Diehl went on Twitter Monday afternoon, writing, “Doubt that MA gas tax $ goes to the general fund and not just transportation? FACT.” The Tweet included a link to the same story referenced by Robichaud. He did not return a phone message left at his State House office Monday.

Conservative talk radio host and Herald columnist Michael Graham also discussed the issue on his radio show Monday, and wrote a blog post about it: “Worse, not a single penny of the new gas tax hikes goes specifically to ‘bridges, roads, and public transportation.’ It goes into the general fund, a.k.a. ‘the big pile of money Beacon Hill liberals spend on anything they want.’ Another lie,” Graham wrote.

Asked about his post, Graham disputed the claim by repeal opponents that the ballot question would “cut” funding for transportation.

“There is no ‘cut.’ There’s a gas tax hike today, and the Legislature is free to pass another one tomorrow. But the ballot initiative doesn’t ‘cut’ a single penny,” Graham wrote.

The ballot question, if passed, would not affect the recently raised gas tax but would remove projected revenues derived from indexing of the gas tax to inflation. Lawmakers and Gov. Deval Patrick are already planning to spend the money raised from indexing on transportation initiatives.

“It doesn’t cut current funding. That’s correct,” Widmer said. “It cuts the planned funding in the transportation legislation. The legislation aimed to fund transportation over the next 10 or more years, so it counted on the indexing as part of the financing plan. If you take out the indexing, there’s a shortfall in the plan.”

Meet the Author

Matt Murphy

State House News Service
According to the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, the transportation financing plan assumes that the inflation on gas taxes will boost revenues for transportation by $5.7 million in fiscal 2015 and grow annually to $182.6 million by fiscal 2024.

“What the effect would be is that less funding would be available for transportation. There’s no way around that,” said Rafael Mares, of the Conservation Law Foundation.