Our Opinion: Provide municipalities with local tax option

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There are several reasons why people resent paying taxes: They feel the money, once paid, simply disappears into thin air; they believe their politicians waste it and they disagree with how it's being spent. This resentment has been historically exploited by politicians who seek to burnish their public image by resisting new taxes or tax hikes — behavior that can do harm when taken to its extreme.

This hostility toward taxes moderates when taxpayers can see evidence that their money is actually being spent on something tangible — in other words, something closer to home. In fact, local taxes are a valuable tool for communities with needs that can only be met by a local response. Such is the case with the Berkshire County towns of Lee and Great Barrington, both of which have pressing road and bridge maintenance issues whose costs are not being met by state government. Specifically, they seek a local-option fuel tax surcharge of up to five cents that would be dedicated to road and bridge maintenance.

For both municipalities, a local tax makes sense. Their road and bridge infrastructure not only facilitates transportation for local residents, but also for the many visitors upon whom their economies rely. In Lee's case, the old truism that the best taxes are the ones other people pay is particularly appropriate: several of the town's gas stations are located off its turnpike exit, which means a large portion of the levy would be borne by out-of-towners passing through.

Beacon Hill's approach to the problem has been anemic. The Legislature has appropriated $200 million for general infrastructure maintenance for the entire state, which is about half-a-billion dollars short of what is needed. Lee alone needs a fifth of the appropriated amount just to fix its own road infrastructure problems. Both Lee and Great Barrington have reached the point where they are ready to tax themselves to alleviate their road infrastructure problems, and the Berkshires delegation, including state Senator Adam Hinds and Representatives William "Smitty" Pignatelli and Tricia Farley-Bouvier, have been pushing their colleagues to produce the required legislation. In an adroit move, they have introduced a bifurcated option in hopes of achieving success: blanket legislation that would cover all Massachusetts localities, and barring that, a law specifically enabling Lee and Great Barrington to impose a tax.

This is an election year, however, and although the Legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic, its allergy to anything that says "tax hike" smacks of inflexible Republican tax orthodoxy more often seen in the halls of Congress. Not only is the Legislature's foot-dragging on this issue craven and counterproductive, it wrongly assumes that the electorate is unable to comprehend the difference between a tax hike and a locally passed optional tax designed to be spent precisely where the money is raised.

Presumably the atmosphere in the Statehouse will be more favorable to a local option for the entire state — or at least the two towns — after Election Day, and we urge the members of the delegation to keep the issue front and center until such time as legislators are willing to grant localities permission to tax their citizens and spend that money as they choose.

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