Patrick asks lawmakers for gas tax backup

Wants a plan in case western tolls come down


GOV. DEVAL PATRICK PLANS to return the Legislature’s transportation financing plan on Tuesday with an amendment that would trigger an automatic increase in the gas tax in 2017 if Massachusetts Turnpike tolls come down as currently scheduled.

The Legislature last week approved a five-year transportation financing plan that would raise $500 million in new taxes, including a 3-cent increase in the gas tax, a $1 per-pack hike in cigarette taxes and new sales taxes on software design services that critics say will harm the state’s innovation industries.

House and Senate leaders say the plan would direct as much as $805 million in new spending to the state’s aging infrastructure and public transit systems by 2018, but Patrick has expressed concern that with tolls on the Turnpike from Newton to the New York border due to come down in 2017 the total will be far less. The administration estimates $135 million in toll revenue will disappear when the tolls come down.

Patrick is open to the possibility that the Legislature could change the current law to allow the turnpike toll to remain beyond 2017 when bonds on the highway are paid off, according to an administration official. The governor would also be open to discussing another source of reliable revenue to replace the $135 million if legislative leaders are opposed to another gas tax increase.

“His basic principle is that if he’s going to sign an $805 million bill, he wants it to be an $805 million bill,” the official said. The Legislature’s plan is already smaller than the $1 billion Patrick hoped to raise for transportation through his own tax reform plan that would have raised the income tax, lowered the sales tax and made a host of other tax code changes.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has urged Patrick to reconsider not signing the bill as passed, saying issues raised by the administration about an expected loss of revenues from plans to take down tolls in 2017 can be addressed  in the future after the Department of Transportation explores other options like tolling the borders.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer has also expressed concern about another gas tax, saying he would prefer to see drivers of the turnpike pay for the upkeep and policing of the highway with tolls rather than asking drivers around the state to pay more.

The House and Senate are unlikely to consider Patrick’s amendment until after the July 4 holiday weekend, with no more formal sessions planned for this week. The administration official said Patrick, who has said he can’t support the bill as drafted, has not yet considered what he might do if the Legislature rejects the amendment.

The House passed the financing bill 105-47 and the Senate voted 34-6 in favor, making it realistic that leaders in both branches could muster the votes to override a potential veto.

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Matt Murphy

State House News Service
On Monday, the Legislature approved a $34 billion budget for the fiscal year that started the same day. The spending plan relies on revenue from the transportation bill.

The amendment will also address concerns raised by House Minority Leader Brad Jones that without Patrick’s signature on the bill by July 1 the state could find itself trying to retroactively tax consumers and businesses.

Patrick will propose to push back the effective date of the tax increase on gas and software services until seven days after the new taxes become law, giving time for retail stores to adjust. The administration said the Legislature already addressed the effective date of the tobacco taxes in the bill it passed last week.