STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
A $1.6 BILLION spending bill passed the Massachusetts House unanimously on Wednesday after representatives shot down a Republican bid to add in language that would have suspended the state’s gas tax until prices fall below $3.70 a gallon, a proposal the House’s top Democrat called a “stunt.”
Passed a day before the two-year anniversary of Gov. Charlie Baker’s March 2020 declaration of a state of emergency around COVID-19 and with public health metrics trending in a positive direction, the bill reflects the continued influence of the virus.
It allocates $700 million for pandemic-related expenses, including COVID testing, treatment, vaccination access and personal protective equipment, spending that House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said would help Massachusetts prepare for the future.
The midyear spending bill also extends COVID-related eviction protections through March 2023 and continues both special pandemic permissions for outdoor dining and the authorization for restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails with takeout orders through April 1, 2023.
With a smaller bottom line than the $2.4 billion version Gov. Charlie Baker filed, the House’s bill also features $100 million to repair local roads from winter damage, $100 million in rental assistance, $55 million for rate increases for human service providers, $140 million to support staffing and program needs at private special education schools, and $10 million to support resettlement of refugees, particularly those from Ukraine.
Before passing the bill, representatives agreed to an amendment that added $6.75 million in spending — $1.75 million for the Department of Fire Services and $5 million in additional support for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
The community action agencies that administer the fuel assistance program had asked for $50 million, writing to Michlewitz Tuesday that they have seen an increase in applications and that many of the people they’ve been able to help have exhausted their benefits as heating oil prices rise.
“The conditions we have seen this winter are unprecedented in terms of the price of energy brought on in part by the impact the invasion of Ukraine has had on worldwide oil supply,” MASSCAP Executive Director Joe Diamond wrote.
Spencer Republican Rep. Peter Durant also cited Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and spiking energy prices in his push to suspend the gas tax, a proposal that Revenue Committee Chair Rep. Mark Cusack dismissed before the vote as a “gimmick.”
Durant’s amendment sought to suspend the gas tax until the average per-gallon price of unleaded gasoline in Massachusetts is less than $3.70. AAA reported an average price of $4.24 per gallon in the state on Tuesday.
Durant told his colleagues that adopting his amendment will show residents “we have skin in the game, too.”
“This is one small step that we as a Commonwealth can say to the people of this state that we feel your pain,” Durant said. “We’re willing to step up to the plate, we’re willing to do what’s right, and we’ll take some of this burden on ourselves.”
The House rejected Durant’s amendment on a voice vote, where individual lawmakers’ positions are not recorded.
Paul Craney of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance criticized the voice vote, saying it was “disappointing that House lawmakers play games to protect themselves from hard votes while motorists are still left paying the highest recorded prices for a gallon of gasoline.”
With Massachusetts posting record per-gallon prices this week, Republican gubernatorial candidates Chris Doughty and Geoff Diehl have called for gas tax relief.
Arguing against Durant’s amendment on the floor, Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Bill Straus said revenue from the gas tax is among the guarantees the state makes when it borrows money for transportation projects, and warned that pausing collection of the 24-cent-per-gallon tax for an indeterminate period of time could make future projects more costly.
Cusack said his committee is “looking at real relief for families, not political gimmicks.” He said the panel is reviewing the estate tax changes and rental deduction increase that Baker offered up in January as part of a nearly $700 million package of proposals to help individual taxpayers and make the state more competitive.
Cusack said the rental deduction and other measures the committee is looking at offer “real relief and real money in the pockets of everyone across the Commonwealth, not just drivers.”
“The price of gas is outrageous,” Cusack told reporters. “There’s a lot of price gouging up there. The price of gas has risen a lot higher as a percentage than has a barrel and that needs to be looked at, but there’s no relief in this amendment for home heating oil and gas, so that’s also a concern. But we’re looking at real relief.”
Cusack, a Braintree Democrat, said the gas tax also affects the state’s bond rating.
“Our bond rating and our bonds are based on our revenue streams and this is a pretty guaranteed revenue stream,” he said. “We use the gas tax to bond a lot of our transportation projects, including Chapter 90, so to start messing around with that and to do it without doing all our homework — which is not atypical of proposals from our colleagues on the other side — they can’t answer what it does to bonding, they can’t answer the long-term costs, and it’s a gimmick that doesn’t even make sense when you read it.”
Similarly knocking the gas tax suspension as a “stunt,” House Speaker Ron Mariano said after Wednesday’s session that lawmakers are “beginning to try and figure out a way that would have a bigger impact on families that have to deal with the uncertainty that we’re facing in inflation and certainly in fuel supply.”
Mariano said he and Cusack “had a revenue discussion” before Baker filed his plan in January and had been talking about the estate tax and something that would benefit renters.
Sam Doran contributed to this report.