Gas tax indexing ballot question could stump voters

Unclear if close polls due to policy differences or voter confusion

Polls indicate voters are split on whether the state’s gas tax should be indexed to inflation, but it’s unclear whether the tight race is a reflection of real policy differences or voter confusion.

The Legislature pegged the gas tax to the consumer price index in 2013 as part of a series of reforms designed to steer more dollars into the state’s transportation networks. Beginning in 2015, the gas tax would rise or fall with the rate of inflation, but not below a floor of 21.5 cents per gallon. Question 1, the first of four policy questions on the statewide ballot this year, asks voters to eliminate the tie between the state’s 24 cent gas tax and the consumer price index. Voting “yes” on Question 1 would strike the indexing provision from the books; voting “no” vote would keep the current law in place.

“One of the realities around this is that there is considerable confusion,” said Michael Widmer, executive director of the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation, which supports the current law.

A September WBUR Tracking Poll suggested that voters may be confused. Margins between the “yes” and “no” camps are slim: Overall, 45 percent plan to vote “no,” compared to 39 percent who intend to vote “yes.” Among Democrats, 46 percent of those surveyed plan to vote “no;” 38 percent, “yes.” Republicans were evenly divided. Unenrolled voters leaned “no.” (The MassINC Polling Group conducted the WBUR poll. MassINC is the publisher of CommonWealth magazine.)

“The party ID breakdowns don’t make any sense yet and that will change,” said Joshua Dyck, the co-director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “It’s confusing for voters any time that ‘yes’ means repeal the law and ‘no’ means keep the law.”

“A lot more voter education is going to be needed before we can really understand the [poll] numbers,” said Steve Aylward, who heads up the Committee to Tank Automatic Gas Tax Hikes, the pro-repeal group. Question 1 proponents believe that indexing is nothing more than a badly disguised, “automatic tax” created by state lawmakers who want to duck annual votes on taxes.

The ballot question’s main opponent is the Committee for Safer Roads and Bridges, a coalition of business, environmental, and transportation groups and mayors like Springfield’s Domenic Sarno and Salem’s Kim Driscoll. They argue that doing away with indexing means that Massachusetts would forgo $1 billion in investments in the state’s roads, bridges, mass transit, and other transportation networks over the next 10 years.

Since the ballot question involves a tax, Dyck believed that voters eventually will break along party lines as Election Day nears, with Democrats voting to retain the law and Republicans deciding to get rid of it.

“The challenge for the ‘yes’ side is they need to be able to explain this measure to voters and basically convince them that voting ‘yes’ is a tax cut,” said Dyck. “If they’re to make that argument, whether or not that’s real…then it has a chance to pass. If voters are confused by what the [consumer price index] is and whether ‘yes’ means ‘no’ and ‘no’ means ‘yes,’ then this measure will fail. People vote ‘no’ when they don’t know, because ‘no’ preserves the status quo.”

Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate for governor, supports the indexing repeal effort; Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate opposes it. Among the independents, Evan Falchuk wants to maintain an indexed gas tax, while Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively favor the repeal.

Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican who opposes indexing, said that during the signature-gathering campaign to get the repeal on the November ballot, he spent “quite a bit” of time explaining to people how the gas tax would be tied to changes in the consumer price index.

“[Indexing the gas tax] is kind of a tricky concept for people who are advocates for either position to deal with,” said Michael D. Goodman, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis. He argues that without indexing, the money collected does not keep pace with the demands on the system.

“What you are trying to do by indexing anything to inflation is to recognize that over time the value of money declines as prices rise,” Goodman said. “The costs of maintaining the [transportation] infrastructure rises each year as prices rise [with] the cost of construction and the cost of materials.”

The attorney general and the secretary of state’s offices write the summaries of the ballot questions and the explanations of what a “yes” or a “no” vote will do. The supporters and opponents write 150-word maximum “in favor” and “against” arguments.

Brian McNiff, spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin, admitted that ballot questions can trip up people if they haven’t done their homework, since they are written in “language that most people don’t face every day.” His advice? Use state’s ballot question voter information guide or a take “cheat sheet” into the voting booth.

Ballot measures that ask voters to adjust benefits in tandem with the consumer price index have passed in places like Washington State, where voters raised the minimum wage and adjusted it for inflation in 1998. Social Security benefits are also linked to the consumer price index.

“To the extent that people have even heard of inflation adjusting, it’s actually to adjust benefits to make them higher, not to adjust taxes,” said transportation analyst Stephanie Pollack, assistant director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Florida and Maryland link the gas tax directly to inflation. A number of other states link the gas tax to other mechanisms, such as wholesale prices. However, states like Wisconsin and Maine have repealed indexing, and legislators in New Hampshire and Michigan recently rejected proposals to index the gas tax to inflation.

Massachusetts is likely the first state to put gas tax indexing before voters. Mid-September Office of Campaign and Political Finance reports show the Committee for Safer Roads and Bridges to be better positioned to run a statewide campaign, with $782,983 in the bank. The group has raised nearly $1.1 million.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

The Committee to Tank Automatic Gas Tax Hikes had $5,953 on hand and has raised nearly $70,000. Aylward declined to outline his group’s plans for getting voters up to speed on Question 1, but admitted that “fundraising is key.” “We want to raise as much money as possible,” he said.

With so few dollars to spend, the repeal forces need Charlie Baker to embrace the issue. “If Baker takes this and he does well, then that’s a clear pathway to victory for the measure,” said Dyck. “ ‘Yes’ is harder to get to than ‘no,’ and especially if the wording is confusing.”