As the House prepares to debate new funding sources for transportation, Massachusetts Republicans find themselves in an awkward situation.
They generally oppose raising taxes, particularly the gas tax, but the party’s top elected official, Gov. Charlie Baker, is leading the charge for an 11-state transportation climate initiative that would place a price on the carbon contained in automobile fuels and have an impact similar to raising the gas tax. An analysis released by Baker’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs indicated the transportation climate initiative, often called TCI, would hike the price of gas 17 cents a gallon just to have a modest impact on emissions.
Republicans on Beacon Hill so far seem to be staking out anti-gas tax positions, while glossing over the fact that Baker is off the reservation when it comes to the transportation climate initiative.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones told State House News that the state is flush with cash and simply needs to prioritize better, He noted lawmakers have already given initial approval to a constitutional amendment that would impose a surtax on millionaires, raising $1.5 to $2 billion a year.
The state comptroller released a year-end report for fiscal 2019 on Monday that also highlighted the state’s strong cash-flow position. The report said tax revenues in fiscal 2019 totaled $29.741 billion, up $1.862 billion, or 7.2 percent, over fiscal 2018.
“It’s not a revenue issue, it’s a spending issue,” said Rep. Steven Howitt, the ranking Republican on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. He said an overall increase in the gas tax “just is not something that we would be in favor of.”
Jim Lyons, the former rep who now heads the state Republican Party, made the same point more forcefully. He issued a press release on December 31 hailing the recent reduction in the income tax rate to 5 percent but said Massachusetts taxpayers should be wary of a “new gas tax” disguised as a climate initiative.
“The taxpayers sent a message to Beacon Hill when they voted in 2014 to overturn a different automatic gas tax scheme, but it looks like Beacon Hill didn’t listen,” he said. “The state is already awash in taxpayer cash. When will it ever be enough?”
Lyons, who said “more common sense Republicans” are needed on Beacon Hill to block the transportation climate initiative, never mentioned in his press release that the initiative is being pushed by Baker, the top Republican in the state.