House leaders talk transpo taxes

Chamber likely to take up bill in November


HOUSE LEADERS ARE INCHING toward a proposal to raise new revenue “sourced from transportation for transportation” to invest in infrastructure and public transit, keeping their eye on the third full week of November as a deadline to take up a bill.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo met for over 90 minutes on Monday afternoon with Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, Revenue Committee Co-chair Mark Cusack, and Transportation Committee Co-Chair William Straus to discuss where they stand on a revenue package they’ve been mulling for months.

The meeting supplanted the speaker’s usual Monday sit-down with his leadership team, underscoring, according to aides, DeLeo’s desire to debate transportation taxes and revenues this fall before the Legislature recesses for the year next month.

“We talked about a lot of the same stuff that’s been discussed for years, tried to drill down on some of the pros and cons of the different tactics that we’ll try to put something together,” Mariano said after exiting the speaker’s office.

The Quincy Democrat said House leaders “for the first time started to put some numbers next to the strategies,” but indicated that no decision had been made yet on how large a revenue package to pursue.

“That’s still open. We didn’t settle on a number,” Mariano said. “We settled on investigating specific strategies and seeing what that would generate and putting those together to get a number, so the number will come after we vet some of these strategies a little more thoroughly.”

While specifics have up to this point been scarce, momentum seems to be gathering this week behind the push for new revenue, with a Senate working group meeting Tuesday to hear ideas from its subcommittees, and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation holding its annual tax policy conference.

Members of the Senate’s revenue working group, including its leader Sen. Adam Hinds, MTF President Eileen McAnneny, Mass. Business Roundtable Director JD Chesloff, Greater Boston Chamber President James Rooney, and Mass. Society of CPAs President Amy Pitter will be presenting at the conference.

DeLeo earlier this year in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce challenged the business community to come up with ideas for revenue to invest in transportation that it could coalesce around. House officials, however, say the speaker has not necessarily been waiting for business leaders to move forward.

“Their input will be helpful, but certainly we’ve been actively working on this and the speaker’s goal is to have something for them to react to, his initiative, as soon as that can occur,” Straus said.

Mariano, Straus, and Cusack all stopped to talk after the meeting, while Michlewitz stayed behind with the speaker. The three lawmakers said it remains DeLeo’s goal to put a bill before House members to vote on before the Legislature recesses for the year on Nov. 20.

Mariano said he expected the group that met Monday to be reconvened again at some point this week, and predicted at least one more meeting after that will be necessary before the contours of a package are handed over to the chairs and House lawyers to write a bill.

“That would put us into the last week,” Mariano predicted. “It makes it close, but the goal is to have something at least on the floor of the House before the end of the session.”

Straus during the spring said he thought it would be hard to put together a transportation financing proposal that didn’t include an adjustment to the gas tax. He stuck by that position on Monday.

“It’s hard to put a package together that does not in some way relate to the way in which gas taxes work now. It’s not impossible, just hard,” Straus said.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center earlier this month published a paper in which they estimated that the state could raise about $32 million in additional revenue for every cent added to the state’s 24-cent gas tax. That estimate was based on the $769.1 million generated by the gas tax in fiscal 2018.

The national average in state and local taxes and fees paid by drivers at the pump is about 10 cents higher than the gas tax in Massachusetts, according to MassBudget. Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy group which has been advocating for new investments, has come out in favor of a 25-cent gas tax hike.

MassBudget, however, has warned that increasing the gas tax will disproportionately impact low- and moderate-income households, and may be undercut by the state’s long-term goal of reducing its carbon footprint.

The organization has recommended coupling any gas tax hike with an increase in the earned income tax credit.

All three state representatives said the challenge is not only identifying revenue sources and deciding how that money will be spent but also putting together a revenue package a year before an election that the members would be comfortable supporting.

After a similar meeting in July, Straus and Cusack said the House would like the money to be put toward the MBTA, regional transit authorities, roads and bridges and more.

“What we’ve been doing is looking at the different options that are predictably out there and seeing whether they could fit in or out of an overall revenue package that members would be comfortable with,” Straus said.

“Tied directly to transportation, though,” Mariano interjected.

Cusack said that new revenue would be “sourced from transportation for transportation” to the extent possible.

Aside from the gas tax, transportation tolls currently provide significant revenue and have been eyed as a way to create more revenue and influence traffic flows. Gov. Charlie Baker, who opposes using toll rates in a way designed to influence congestion, is working with his counterparts in other states on a market-based system to reduce transportation-related carbon emissions and generate new revenue, likely through higher gas prices.

Meet the Author

Matt Murphy

State House News Service
The comments seemed to indicate House leaders may be steering clear of recommending changes to certain major tax streams – the income, sales, and corporate taxes, for instance – that do not have a direct link to transportation.

The looming revenue debate comes about six years after the Legislature embarked on a similar exercise that resulted in a $500 million package of gas, cigarette, and business tax hikes, several pieces of which would later be unwound by either the Legislature itself or voters at the ballot box.