HOUSE SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO is putting off a debate over tax legislation to fund transportation improvements until next year, throwing into doubt whether anything will happen in an area that advocates and business groups say is in desperate need of more funding.
After expressing some uncertainty Wednesday about his plans to take up the tax bill this fall and as word began to leak out on Thursday, DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz told the State House News Service that they were postponing the debate.
“We decided that it’s better that we try to get this right than to try to comply with, I guess you could say, a somewhat arbitrary deadline,” said DeLeo, who insisted most House lawmakers are committed to addressing transportation needs.
The delay pushes the entire legislative process into an election year, when lawmakers tend to be more sensitive about taking politically risky votes. It may also signal some reluctance to raise taxes to finance transportation improvements overall. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and other groups have voiced support for tax hikes, but the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership have thrown cold water on the idea.
DeLeo signaled in March this year that he wanted to have a debate on transportation revenues this fall and then just a few weeks ago several members of his leadership team indicated a vote was being planned for next week. But as the date drew closer the speaker and his leadership team became more and more wary of moving forward.
Many factors figured into the decision. Lawmakers from outside Boston expressed concerns about whether the bill would be too focused on the MBTA. Gov. Charlie Baker signaled no willingness to back down on his opposition to a package of new revenues. And Senate President Karen Spilka just last week gave no assurances that the Senate would take up a revenue package passed by the House, which made lawmakers already anxious about casting a tax vote even more nervous that it could all be for naught.
One House lawmaker, who asked to remain anonymous, welcomed the delay. The person said lawmakers need more time to listen to the concerns of their constituents and to deliver a balanced revenue package that benefits and/or hurts all parts of the state equally. The lawmaker said the proposals put forward, dealing with the gas tax, tolls, rideshare fees, and other revenue-raising measures, were all fairly complicated and required time to sort out. “These things are much more complicated when you get into the weeds,” the lawmaker said.
DeLeo said his new target is to put a bill out in January.
“Our commitment to the issue is still very strong, is still there. Our timeline is just going to be a little different than we initially perceived it to be,” said Michlewitz.
Chris Anderson, the president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, a business group that sees no need for a major transportation revenue bill, seemed to sense early Thursday – before the speaker’s announcement – that the wind was changing on Beacon Hill.
“The legislative leadership is listening to a lot of the perspectives that we and others have been providing them,” he said on a taping of the CommonWealth Codcast that will be posted Sunday. “The key is a pending transportation bond bill that has a nearly $20 billion, 5-year spend and includes a revenue component that would be targeted at some environmental benefit. That is the message that’s causing the House to rethink the timing of when they take up what otherwise looks like a rush to judgment on a gas tax bill.”
Anderson said waiting until next year to debate transportation revenues would give lawmakers time to act on the governor’s bond bill and to see how much progress is being made on the transportation climate initiative, a multistate effort to place a charge on the carbon contained in automobile fuels. The participating states are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding next month. Baker has pledged to direct half of the money raised by the initiative to public transit and the MBTA.
Anderson said lawmakers also need more time to assess the political fallout of raising the gas tax for lawmakers representing communities bordering New Hampshire.
After DeLeo’s announcement, the High Tech Council issued a statement saying it was wise “to avoid any rush to revenue… The size of the tax, toll, and fee proposals advanced by some advocates are too large and the scope of their potential impact is too broad to move forward in anything but a methodical and data-driven way. We look forward to working with the Speaker and other legislative leaders to advance the most innovative and impactful solutions to our transportation challenges throughout the remainder of the 2019-20 legislative session.”
Stephen Brewer, who was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee during the last major tax debate in 2013, said in a phone interview that legislative leaders will need to count votes, and it is especially important to have adequate support to override the governor if he is inclined to veto the bill.
“There’s nothing worse than taking a tax vote and not having it become law,” Brewer said. “It’s tough enough to take one. But if you take one and you’re on record and you didn’t get the revenues for it, then you lose twice.”
Rep. William Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the legislation would likely provide a funding stream for the annual disbursement of local road repair money known as Chapter 90. Though he said there is no set proposal yet, Straus said the bill is unlikely to create a new governance structure for the MBTA whose Fiscal and Management Control Board is due to expire in less than a year.
Jim Rooney, the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, who coordinated a discussion in the business community on transportation revenues and supported a fairly aggressive package of proposals, blamed the House pullback on geographical politics. He said support for a transportation revenue package is fairly strong in and around Greater Boston but less strong in other parts of the state.
“The selling of it is dealing with the perception that it’s a Boston package, that it’s all about the T,” he said.
Rooney said he still believes a transportation bill will pass the House next year, but he says it will be tougher to pass in an election year and the likelihood is strong it will be far less ambitious than if it was done this year.
Straus dismissed the notion that the delay would result in a watering down of the proposal.
“I don’t think it does justice to the members or their constituents to think that a vote-taking in November versus a vote-taking in January changes any of the underlying policy or even political ramifications,” Straus said. “I think that you have to give a lot more credit to everybody in this.”
As the House put off action on a transportation bill, a new poll indicates 71 percent of voters think “action is urgently needed to improve the state’s transportation system” and 77 percent support new revenues to invest in transportation. But there was little unanimity among those polled for which revenues to use for transportation investments. According to the poll, 51 percent of voters support a hike in ride-hailing fees, 50 percent back new tolls at the state’s borders, and 43 percent support new tolls on I-95 and I-93.
The poll indicated 62 percent of voters support the so-called transportation climate initiative, which would raise the price of gasoline by assessing a fee on fuel wholesalers and using the proceeds from the fee to make investments in transportation. Only 49 percent of voters favored raising the gas tax by 5 cents three years in a row, and only 43 percent backed raising the tax 15 cents all at once.
The poll was conducted by the MassINC Polling Group and paid for by the Barr Foundation.