Pollack says she has no opinion on surtax to fund transportation

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BOSTON — Stephanie Pollack in 2013 urged lawmakers considering new revenue sources for transportation to consider a greater mix of funds. On Monday, as state transportation secretary, Pollack said she has no position nor opinion on one of the grandest proposals out there — a plan to reap nearly $2 billion in state income tax dollars for transportation and education.

"I have no position on that at this point," Pollack said after an MBTA meeting. Asked if she had any thoughts or opinions on the proposal, Pollack said, "Nope."

As transportation secretary, Pollack oversees the MBTA, which is holding hearings on its latest fare hike proposals, and the larger transportation network that has long been saddled with unfunded capital needs associated with both new projects and efforts to keep existing infrastructure in good working conditions.

Pollack's remarks align with Gov. Charlie Baker, who is generally opposed to tax increases but declined as a candidate to take a no new taxes pledge and is so far not yet in either the pro or con camp on the proposed constitutional amendment.

Education Secretary James Peyser opposes the amendment that would add a 4 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million, arguing it would damage the state's economy. "I think it will weaken our economy and that will damage our ability as a Commonwealth to support the schools and the other services that we desperately need," Peyser told the News Service last month.

As associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in 2013 when a separate $2 billion tax proposal was on the table, Pollack spoke on the "lack of revenue and under-investment" in Bay State transportation.

"There is no silver bullet for generating enough revenue to address the transportation system's multi-billion dollar operating, maintenance and capital deficits," Pollack said in written testimony to the Transportation Committee, arguing in favor of a "portfolio of revenue sources."

More than two years out from her surprise appointment to the Baker administration, much of Pollack's committee testimony is consistent with her leadership of the Transportation Department now: a focus on improving capacity of the existing system and attention to asset management.

"I can fully understand why the governor and his cabinet aren't going to be talking on this issue and let the voters decide," Barry Bluestone, an economist who supports the surtax, told the News Service. Founding director and research associate at the Dukakis center, Bluestone said it was "surprising" that Peyser opposes the proposal, which he said is a "way of realizing some revenue from people who can afford it."

Chip Faulkner, director of communications at Citizens for Limited Taxation, said he is confident Baker will join in opposition to the proposal, and hopes Pollack will do the same.

"I'm disappointed that she hasn't opposed it at this point," Faulkner told the News Service. On Baker's position, Faulkner said, "We know in the future he will oppose it if he holds true to his word."

The surtax, which would be added to the state's constitution, would need consecutive votes of 50 members of the 200-seat Legislature in a constitutional convention this session and next before it could appear on the 2018 ballot. Lawmakers will meet in a constitutional convention on Wednesday and the Senate on Monday adopted an order placing the surtax amendment on the convention calendar.

Rafael Mares, vice president of Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, encouraged the Baker administration to look at revenue options such as the proposed amendment.

"Considering the continued chronic underfunding of our transportation system, it is important for the administration, in addition to identifying and implementing as many efficiencies as possible, to also look ahead at new and creative revenue sources," Mares wrote in an email. "The fair share amendment has great potential to help the Commonwealth address its longstanding transportation challenges."

The Department of Revenue estimates the proposed surtax would raise $1.9 billion, affecting 19,500 filers. Opinions differ on whether the amendment's language designating the revenue for transportation and education would be legally binding.

"It's a falsehood," said Faulkner.

On Tuesday night, Pollack will appear on a Lexington cable access program with Rep. Jay Kaufman, House chairman of the Revenue Committee, and an ardent supporter of the constitutional amendment.


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