GOP lawmakers renew effort to suspend gas tax 

Will force Senate roll call vote Thursday 

REPUBLICAN STATE SENATORS plan to force a vote on a temporary suspension of the state gas tax on Thursday, despite failing in a similar effort in the House. Although they are unlikely to succeed in passing the policy, a roll call would force Democratic lawmakers who oppose the policy to take a vote that could be politically unpopular among constituents.  

Asked about the chance of success in suspending the gas tax, even Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, did not sound optimistic. “The important thing is not about probabilities or odds, it’s about doing what’s right,” Tarr said at a press conference outside the State House. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, gas prices have skyrocketed nationally. In Massachusetts, the average gas price on Wednesday was $4.26, up from $3.56 a month ago and $2.77 this time last year, according to AAA. The state gas tax is 24 cents per gallon.  

When the House took up its version of a $1.6 billion supplemental budget bill earlier this month, Republican Rep. Peter Durant of Spencer introduced an amendment to temporarily suspend the state gas tax until the price of gas dips back below $3.70.  

But Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee, urged lawmakers to vote no because the gas tax money was already committed to a transportation trust fund, and rescinding that commitment would hurt the state’s bond rating. Straus said the gas tax money was “pledged by contract with bondholders” when the state borrowed money to fund transportation projects. “The people who review and rate bonds are very boring, serious people. They don’t like surprises and they especially don’t like it when borrowers go back on their word,” Straus said. 

Because no one requested a roll call vote, in which lawmakers must put their name to their vote, Durant’s amendment failed on a voice vote.  

Four House lawmakers attended Wednesday’s press conference. Asked why there was no House roll call, none stepped forward to answer, and Tarr said the House effort has “been in development,” and this “will not be the last opportunity to get relief in the House in a floor debate.”  

After the event, Rep. David DeCoste, a Norwell Republican, said he did not know why there was no roll call, but, “I think in the future next time, when and if this happens, there will be a request for a roll call. There’s a number of us who will make sure there is a request for a roll call.” 

Tarr said there will be a roll call request in the Senate. 

The amendment to the Senate version of the supplemental budget bill was filed by Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican, and would suspend the gas tax through Labor Day. Fattman said Maryland, which has a Democratic-led Legislature, passed a gas tax suspension, and Connecticut, which is Democratic-led, is voting on one. The Republican-led Georgia legislature has also suspended its gas tax, and New Hampshire, led by a Republican governor, is considering it. “This is a bipartisan issue done for the benefit of people we represent,” Fattman said. 

Tarr said the Senate amendment would avoid the concern about bond rating agencies by backfilling the expected $300 million to $400 million cost with surplus money. The state has collected tax revenues that are around $1.7 billion higher than anticipated this year, and Tarr said some of that money should go toward providing relief to consumers and business owners hurt by rising gas prices. 

“We cannot and will not stand idle as motorists across the Commonwealth are feeling pain at the gas pump,” Tarr said. 

Beth Dumouchel, a Northbridge mother of three children with special needs who spoke at the lawmakers’ press conference, said her family is not planning their typical annual trips to Cape Cod and the Berkshires because of the spike in gas prices. Driving to work and her children’s therapeutic services is essential, she said, so extras are cut. “What else am I going to tell my children they can long longer have? Scouts? Swimming?” she asked. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Democratic leaders are unlikely to support the policy. At a recent press conference, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka echoed Straus’s worry that suspending the gas tax would hurt the state’s bond rating. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said he would prefer to see his $700 million tax cut package, which does not include a gas tax suspension, become law. 

Tarr said if Republican lawmakers are unsuccessful in the supplemental budget debate, they will try again in other supplemental budgets, the annual state budget, and through standalone legislation. “We wouldn’t meet our responsibility if we said because the first time out we didn’t succeed, we will abandon the effort,” Tarr said.