Parsing Baker’s tax, fee philosophy
He opposes them, but implies he has an open mind
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Wednesday vetoed legislation directing the state to seek federal funding for a voluntary study of whether a vehicle-miles-traveled tax could be a viable alternative to a tax on gasoline.
Baker said he vetoed the provision partly because of his opposition to new taxes and fees and partly because he believes a Massachusetts study is unnecessary. “There are already a bunch of states that are doing experiments on this. We can certainly learn from those experiments,” he said after signing an economic development bill into law at the State House.
In his written veto message, Baker didn’t mention his opposition to new taxes and fees. He said that before launching a pilot vehicle-miles-traveled program the state should first identify emerging technologies that could support such a program, any costs the state would incur in implementing it, and any privacy issues that might impact participants. He also said he would oppose implementing any vehicle-miles-traveled program that would impose taxes in addition to the existing tax on gasoline.
The governor’s answers typified his mindset on taxes and fees. He opposes raising revenues through new taxes and fees, yet he repeatedly implies he might change his mind if presented with the right evidence.
Proponents of a vehicle-miles-traveled tax say learning more about its impact was the point of the legislative provision directing the state to seek federal funds for a VMT study with volunteer participants. With vehicles becoming more fuel efficient, gasoline consumption and, therefore, gasoline taxes, are declining. The trend is likely to continue and to accelerate as more and more cars are powered by electricity.
Those who wanted to study how a VMT would work in Massachusetts said they believed it could be developed in a way that would not overburden residents from the western part of the state who tend to drive more. Baker said he is skeptical and wants no part of a study.
“I would never support a vehicle-miles-traveled tax unless I was absolutely sure that it was not going to create additional burdens on drivers in Massachusetts, and especially on drivers in parts of the Commonwealth where there’s not a lot of available public transportation,” Baker said.
Asked whether he was firmly opposed to new taxes and fees of any kind, Baker said: “I’ve said many times that I’m not interested in raising taxes. I think we should do a better job with the resources that we have, and I especially find this one [the VMT tax] troubling because I do believe it has the potential to create a really skewed set of tax circumstances for a number of folks here in the Commonwealth.”
In 2010, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor, Baker signed a no-new-taxes pledge. When he ran and won in 2014, he didn’t sign the pledge. During that campaign, he backed a ballot question that successfully repealed legislation indexing the state gasoline tax to inflation but said he was OK with a 3-cent increase in the gas tax approved before he took office.
Baker told the Boston Globe shortly before taking office in 2015 that his position on taxes and fees hadn’t changed, but he refused to say definitively that he would never raise taxes or fees. The Globe’s Joshua Miller recently reported the entirety of his exchange with the governor on taxes and fees.
Miller: “So, over the course of your time as governor, however long it may be, you will not raise taxes or fees?”
Miller: “Pretty much or definitely?”
Baker: “Pretty much. That’s not a lot of wiggle room there.”Yet recently Baker has seemed to waver a bit. He came out in support of extending the state lodging tax to home-sharing businesses such as Airbnb, but then backtracked and withdrew his support. Airbnb had welcomed being covered by the tax. Baker also signed into law legislation establishing a new 20-cent-per-ride fee on ride-sharing apps.
A special MBTA panel appointed by the governor reported to him in 2015 that the agency needed reform and new revenue. Stephanie Pollack, the governor’s secretary of transportation, said reform had to come before new revenue. Baker, however, has given no indication he favors more state tax revenue for the T, although he did support raising customer fares by nearly 10 percent this year and vetoed legislation that would have limited the flexibility of the T to raise fares in the future. That veto was overridden by the Legislature.