THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE, widely considered a bastion of liberalism on Beacon Hill, suddenly finds itself being pushed and prodded by all sorts of progressive groups to follow the lead of the more business-friendly House and raise taxes and fees to support transportation.
The House passed a more than $500 million tax and fee package to support transportation in early March, and then watched as the bill stalled in the Senate in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Gov. Charlie Baker has scoffed at the idea of raising the gasoline tax during a pandemic, but he remains in favor of a transportation climate initiative which would have much the same impact.
A wide variety of progressive groups are starting to bang the drum for the Senate to pass its own revenue bill. Thirty-seven House members of the Progressive Caucus sent a letter to members of the Senate on Monday pressing the body to pass a tax package. The Rise UP Coalition joined the chorus on Tuesday, and a group of Boston city councilors and transportation advocates staged a real, in-person press conference at Nubian Station in Roxbury on Wednesday to make the case.
“We must see Senate leadership,” said Chris Dempsey, the director of Transportation for Massachusetts. “If the state Senate does not act, the traffic is coming back. The air pollution is coming back.”
Revenue bills must originate in the House. In the past, Senate members have often been frustrated with the House’s reluctance to pass revenue measures. But now the Senate has a revenue measure in front of it and shows no signs of acting on it.
The House package increases the gas tax by 5 cents to 29 cents a gallon and hikes the corporate minimum excise tax, which has not been changed in 30 years, from $456 for all companies to a tiered structure at the top of which companies with more than $1 billion in sales would pay at least $150,000.
Ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft would see the 20-cent-per-trip flat fee stay the same for people who take shared rides and rise to $1.20 for each non-shared ride and $2.20 for every luxury ride. The measure would also require rental car companies to pay sales tax when they purchase vehicles for their fleets.
Rep. Tommy Vitolo of Brookline, who attended the press conference at the MBTA’s Nubian Station in Roxbury, said the price of gas has plunged 50 cents a gallon during the pandemic. “Do you think drivers would notice a 5 cent increase in the price of gas with the price down 50 cents?” he asked.
Rep. Nika Elugardo of Jamaica Plain said she has heard rumors that the Senate won’t pass a transportation revenue bill because that could undercut efforts to pass a fair share constitutional amendment, which would place a surcharge on incomes greater than $1 million and raise money for transportation and education.
The Senate, for its part, doesn’t seem interested in taking on the issue head-on.
Sen. Adam Hinds, in an interview with State House News Service on Monday, responded to the letter from House members of the Progressive Caucus by pointing out the House hasn’t acted on a number of progressive measures passed by the Senate.
“As a member of the Senate Progressive Caucus, I’m proud of the Senate’s track record of action on progressive causes,” Hinds told the News Service. “I appreciate the House members’ legislative advocacy, just as the Senate will continue to advocate strongly for action on lowering the cost of prescription drugs, mental health reform, healthy youth, climate change legislation, and legislation relating to telehealth, surprise billing, and scope of practice.”
Senate President Karen Spilka said on the Codcast that it’s too early to say what will happen with the House revenue bill. Before any action is taken, she said, lawmakers need to get a better handle on state revenues and potential aid coming from the federal government.
She said the Senate plans to pass an $18 billion transportation bond bill by the end of July but offered no assurances on whether the Senate will act on the transportation revenue package.
“We shouldn’t be taking votes just because another branch has taken a vote. We need to look at all the facts and circumstances before us,” she said. “It’s more than an easy yes or no answer. But no decision has been made yet.”