Governor Patrick's plan to raise $1.9 billion faces uphill battle
Gov. Deval Patrick's plan to raise $1.9 billion in new revenue, mostly for transportation and education projects statewide, is encountering strong headwinds from some lawmakers.
The proposal would cut the Massachusetts sales tax from 6.25 to 4.5 percent while boosting the flat-rate income tax from 5.25 to 6.25 percent.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, D-Winthrop, has voiced "grave concerns," while state Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, the influential chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, has said residents already carry a heavy tax burden.
Asked whether the governor's tax plan is dead on arrival, state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, responded: "By no means. No matter what your ideological or political persuasions are, you can't deny the need for the investments in transportation and early education."
Under Patrick's proposal, $1 billion in annual spending would go to transportation projects along with $550 million for education, including a universal pre-K program and extended days in high-need schools.
Downing, a member of the Joint Ways and Means Committee which is holding public meetings around the state, pointed to a wait list for pre-K education in nearly every community, with as many as 600 youngsters in line for openings in Pittsfield.
"I think the debate is still ongoing," Downing told The Eagle. "The outcome is by no means set in stone. We're asking the administration the questions that need to be asked."
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said that he shares "serious reservations along with many of my colleagues. The governor really has to sell this thing, legislator by legislator."
An online, district-by-district map posted by the governor's office depicts the funds that would flow to each Senate and House district.
"We're analyzing the breakdown, but at the end of the day, it's not a lot of money," said Pignatelli. "Until he sells it to us, he has a real uphill fight. It has a long way to go."
According to Pignatelli, his constituents complain of high unemployment and health insurance costs, along with burdensome property taxes, especially in Great Barrington and Lenox.
"They're saying, ‘Don't tax me more,' " Pignatelli said.
While Patrick has stressed that he's open to consideration of other solutions such as an increase in the gas tax, Pignatelli said he would oppose that formula unless taxes generated locally could be kept in the county.
He does not support a bill co-sponsored by state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, to replace the gas tax with a "pay as you drive" system based on motorists' mileage.
State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, is also on record opposing the mileage tax, citing the great distances driven by residents of rural areas like the Berkshires.
"Tricia deserves a lot of credit," Downing stated. "But I have concerns with pay-as-you-drive in this region. Even a gas-tax increase is difficult to support unless there's a clear commitment that dollars raised locally remain local. Without that guarantee, those are tough steps to take."
Pignatelli favors restoring tolls on the MassPike between Exit 1 at the New York state line and Exit 6 at Chicopee. Studies have shown that 80 percent of the traffic on that stretch is from out of state, he said.
"That idea is still on the table," Downing said, as are high-speed, electronic toll-collection devices that would reduce MassPike personnel costs. "Everything should be on the table."
Downing questioned whether it makes the most sense to raise the state income tax and eliminate 44 deductions or might there be a simpler formula. Reducing the sales tax bite has merit, he added.
"Broadly speaking, the governor's plan has a lot of positives and on the whole, I give him credit for putting it forward," Downing said. "But is it too significant a burden to put on the taxpayers? These are questions that need to be asked and answered."
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Gov. Patrick's map outlining effects of new spending on local districts can be viewed at www.mass.gov/ governor/agenda/choose-growth.html
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