The Salem News
---- — Apparently, despite having the fourth-highest per-capita tax burden and the highest debt in the nation, we still can’t afford our state transportation system. Wouldn’t you think that infrastructure, which is one major reason we have government, would be a priority for spending already available revenues?
And yet, every few years, we hear it again: roads and bridges crumbling, public transportation running on empty, what to do? Hand-wringing public officials and Big Business leaders get together, offer us a choice of various tax, fee and toll plans, and hope we dumb marks will buy promises of better management one more time.
The state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has just released the latest “transportation funding plan,” which includes a menu of possible tax hikes and “potential” reforms. Gov. Deval Patrick watches the public response to his trial balloon as he prepares for tonight’s State of the State address.
The game never changes: We get to argue among ourselves as to which tax/fee proposals we dislike the least and might accept, and prove ourselves fools and enablers once again.
A recent poll showed that 83 percent of those polled don’t want a 15-cent increase in the state gas tax. So the governor is floating a 30-cent increase. Wow, that makes a 15-cent increase look almost reasonable!
This month, the usual list of tax hikers meets at the Statehouse to urge an increase in the income tax rate to 5.95 percent. Now the transportation financing plan floats a possible 5.66 percent rate. Wow, so much better than 5.95 percent!
Never mind that the voters, angry that they were still paying the 1989 “temporary” income tax hike, rolled back the rate to its traditional 5 percent on the 2000 ballot. The Legislature froze it at 5.3 percent in 2002, but we’ve since re-elected most of the legislators who kicked us in the teeth. They eventually allowed a small reduction to 5.25 percent last year, for which we were really, pathetically, grateful!
How about the sales tax instead? In 2000, the Legislature agreed to earmark 20 percent of sales tax revenue for public transportation, increased the traditional rate from 5 percent to 6.25 percent in 2009. The transportation finance plan floats a 7.75 percent sales tax rate because the MBTA is, as noted above, deep in debt doo-doo again anyhow.
Other ideas are a 0.16 percent payroll tax (on top of the federal payroll tax increase we just found in our paychecks) and increased fees, including an $86 increase in license renewal fees!
And if Gov. Patrick doesn’t choose your preferred new revenue source, don’t feel rejected. As long as we enablers accept any taxes before reforms, they’ll be back for the others eventually. The transportation system still won’t be funded. The MBTA will still be in debt. Our state government will have tricked us once again.
Let me count just the lies I’ve been around to observe:
1. Voters were asked on the 1974 ballot to allow highway tax use for mass transit; they were told this would not impact necessary spending on highways. Voters, including me, bought that fantasy, said OK.
2. I was at a news conference in the late ’80s when the Dukakis administration was asked about the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s concern that the Big Dig would take money from other state and local highway projects. The answer was no, it would not.
3. We were told that the Big Dig would cost around $3 billion. Actual cost was $22 billion, including interest and not counting necessary repairs that have already begun.
4. In 1990, the Dukakis administration raised the gas tax 10 cents per gallon, allegedly to pay for highway maintenance and repair. Voters rejected a ballot question to repeal this and other Dukakis tax hikes. In 1991, it was discovered that the gas tax money was used to reduce the state deficit instead of for highways.
5. Voters later rejected a ballot question to repeal “temporary” tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike because they were told the alternative was a gas tax increase, which is being floated now anyhow, along with toll hikes.
6. Eventually, there was yet another of the executive department consolidations that are done when officials want to look like they are doing something, then you find out that there are the same number of employees, and each of the agencies under the new umbrella have their own human resource departments, purchasing departments, etc.
It’s now 2013, the highways are still not adequately funded, the MBTA is in debt, and the state expects us to trust it again with more of our money. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me over and over, what am I, really dumb?
Here’s my transportation plan. Do the reforms first. My favorites are the recommendations for “more performance management within DOT” and “a modernized asset-management system.” And be sure to do “changes to MBTA retirement eligibility.”
Here are other reforms not being discussed. Do an independent audit of MassDOT, tell us where all the money raised by the gas tax for the state Highway Fund goes. Repeal the state Prevailing Wage Law, which increases the cost of infrastructure projects by making both public and private contractors pay the prevailing union wage. New Hampshire repealed this law in 1985 and has saved millions while maintaining its roads better than Massachusetts does.
When the reforms are done, get back to me about higher taxes, fees and tolls. Who knows? If we try actually managing our transportation system, we may no longer need them.
Barbara Anderson of Marblehead is a regular Salem News columnist.