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Guest Column: Transportation and Tax Kabuki

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Over the past six months, we have witnessed state government’s version of Kabuki theater.

On the face of it, a visionary governor insists that Massachusetts must for all time address all possible state transportation finance needs.

Meanwhile, the Legislature plays the frugal steward of hard-earned taxpayer dollars, forced to raise taxes, but intent on truly targeting the money toward transportation.

The final act is now upon us, as Governor Deval Patrick wields his mighty veto pen to carve the faulty transportation portions of the Legislature’s proposal from the budget while daring the Legislature to call his bluff.

Time for the lights to come on and the masks to come off.

The fact, in simple English, is that neither budget proposal does what it says. No matter who wins this battle of wills, our bridges, roads and transit systems will get precious few dollars.

Really? Here are the facts.

The governor may have used transportation to sell his January budget blueprint, which sought to raise billions of dollars in new income taxes. The problem is, income tax revenue goes to the general operating budget.

With the state already facing a billion-dollar mismatch between projected revenues and the money needed to fund existing programs, there was never really any chance that the new money was going to transportation investments.

The “act relative to transportation finance” adopted by both branches of the legislature in June also promised to bring much-needed changes to the Department of Transportation’s handling of its capital spending. And, to be fair, there are several good things in the Senate-House transportation compromise, including a promise to stop paying transportation staff with borrowed money, which is like taking out a loan to go grocery shopping.

But while the plan raises approximately $500 million in new gas, cigarette and business taxes, only around half of that amount actually goes to transportation.

The rest goes to shore up state government’s never-ceasing hunger for more revenue—and the state’s ever-growing expenditures on health care, which now make up over 50 percent of the overall budget.

Six months is a very long time for any play. The time has come for our elected officials to take off their familiar costumes, make hard choices, and focus on much-needed transportation investments.

The commonwealth’s crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems should not be stage props for the usual Kabuki of tax-and-spend politics.•

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. He is a former undersecretary for policy in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

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