BOSTON — With Massachusetts inching toward a regional climate pact that could increase prices at the gas pumps, lawmakers want more say in deciding whether to move ahead with the plan.
A group of mostly Republican legislators who oppose the so-called Transportation Climate Initiative have filed a proposal that would require the Legislature to approve the plan. They argue that the pact amounts to a "backdoor tax" that must be approved by the House of Representatives and Senate.
"Tax increases have always gone through the Legislature, and this should be no different," said state Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, who opposes the initiative and backs the push for a vote on the plan. "This is too big of a deal to be made with a unilateral decision by the governor's office. We need legislative input."
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, committed the state to joining the program in 2018 as part of an effort to reduce traffic congestion and tackle climate change.
The initiative, put together by a dozen states working on reducing pollution, targets gasoline and diesel fuel consumption, which account for more than 80% of regional carbon emissions that scientists say is contributing to climate change. The pact will lead to a new wholesale tax on fossil fuel suppliers to pay for regional transportation projects.
Under the plan, suppliers who deliver fuel across state lines would be required to pay a tax on excess carbon emissions based on limits that still must be set.
Its costs could ultimately be passed on to motorists, resulting in a 5- to 17-cent-per-gallon increase in the price of gas, according to the coalition.
What's more, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, has said his state won't be joining the pact. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, also a Republican, has vowed to veto any carbon tax.
That could affect North of Boston communities that are already used to residents crossing over into the low-tax Granite State to buy cheaper gas.
Christopher Carlozzi, Massachusetts state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the plan will hurt businesses and others who can't afford higher prices.
Because of that, he said, the Baker administration should seek legislative approval before moving ahead.
"This is going to increase costs for everyone in the state, so there needs to be some sort of a vote on it," Carlozzi said. "There needs to be someone held responsible."
The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative group co-founded by Pepperell businessman Rick Green, argues that the process violates the state Constitution. It's actively trying to recruit lawmakers to sign onto the legislation requiring a vote.
"Even if Gov. Baker believes he has the legal authority to bypass the Legislature, which is in dispute, he should still bring it before the Legislature," said Paul Craney, the group's spokesman. "The merits of TCI must be debated out in the open, and be approved or rejected by the Legislature."
Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, hasn't signed onto the proposal to require legislative approval but she said lawmakers need to exert more oversight of the process.
"Legislators absolutely need to have a voice on this," said Campbell, whose district sits along the New Hampshire border. "Right now, it looks like this proposal would disproportionately affect large corporations and fuel providers. To me, that is preferable to taxing the little guy at the pump. But we need to see specific details before moving ahead."
Put to a vote
Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, said he supports requiring a legislative vote but doesn't want to derail a regional pact to reduce emissions, which he supports.
"I support the intent of what we are trying to do, which is to clean the air," he said. "But a lot of us have differences of opinion about how we will pay for it."
Hill is working on a proposal with House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, that would require any agreement between Massachusetts and other states to come before the Legislature for a vote.
The proposal would be modeled on Article 87 of the state Constitution, which authorizes the reorganization of the executive branch without direct input from the Legislature but gives lawmakers an up or down vote on the changes. Their proposal calls for any multi-state pact to be put to a vote within a set period of time, or the agreement would become law without legislative approval.
Modeled on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which seeks to reduce emissions from power plants, the Transportation Climate Initiative creates a cap-and-invest program to drive down emissions from cars and trucks. The program would get underway in 2022.
Supporters of the plan, including environmental groups and transit advocates, say it will help the state meet dual goals of reducing emissions and easing congestion.
Proponents say the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act that sets carbon emission reduction gives the governor's office the authority to pursue the cap-and-trade program.
The plan's supporters expect higher gas prices to encourage people to drive less often and turn to public transit, thus reducing emissions. Massachusetts drivers already pay 44.9 cents per gallon in state and federal gas taxes, and other fees, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
Baker administration officials say Massachusetts could generate up to $500 million a year for clean transportation programs from the sale of carbon allowances through the program.
A recent survey by MassINC Polling found two-thirds of respondents in Massachusetts and seven other states support the regional approach. But the survey of nearly 7,000 voters was conducted before cost estimates were released and didn't ask about new taxes and fees to implement the program.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.