Michael Widmer, formerly of Mass. Taxpayers Association, gives a recap of the last twenty years (plus) — twenty years — of dawdling and avoidance on actually funding our transportation needs. It’s a sad tale of short-sightedness and political stasis, going back to the Big Dig. And now Governor Baker is proposing even yet still another commission on revenues for the T. It seems to be something we do every ten years, whether we need it or not, to pretend that we’re doing something.
I don’t have reason to doubt the good faith of Widmer’s recollections. But something struck me about his narrative:
The key moment came during 2012 when Rich Davey, the secretary of transportation at the time, toured the state to build support for transportation revenues, presumably with Patrick’s blessing. Business, environmental, and transportation groups all joined in support, and then-Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo each announced that transportation would be a priority for the 2013 legislative session.
However, to everyone’s surprise, at the beginning of the 2013 session Patrick undercut the broad consensus when he rejected transportation revenues and instead proposed a major reform of the tax code, including a large increase in the personal income tax and the ending of three dozen exemptions. Patrick’s proposal was dead on arrival, but it put the Legislature on the defensive and undermined support for a meaningful increase in the gas tax.
Well, this is not quite how I remember it. It seems to me that the Patrick administration stuck out its neck repeatedly on transportation revenues, including a Vehicle-Miles-Traveled tax proposal. Patrick’s tax plan was to raise revenue in a more progressive manner than Widmer’s preferred strategy to raise targeted “transportation taxes and fees”.
In any event, surely the Patrick administration didn’t avoid the question of revenues. They ended up supporting a different, more comprehensive and indeed progressive strategy than Widmer’s.
Furthermore, Widmer’s wording demands some interrogation: “it put the Legislature on the defensive”. Is the legislature — particularly the Speaker, since the House is run absolutely in a top-down manner — not responsible for its own actions?
Does anyone actually doubt that if the House and Senate had been willing to go long and support adequate revenues for transportation — rather than their plainly inadequate $500M plan — that Governor Patrick would not have signed such a bill? Patrick was prodding them to action, and providing them any number of ways to accomplish the goal, including being out front in taking the political hit for proposing new revenues.
“The problem is you are asking people everywhere in the Commonwealth to pay, and not actually delivering anything for them at home. The reason that I think that is bad politics is, at that level the legislature is going to be back here in a few years and … everybody [is] going to say ‘What happened? You just asked us for $500 million, and I don’t see any change,’” Patrick said.
(To be rudimentary about it, the executive branch’s control over legislation is indirect at best. We get confused about the roles of the executive at the federal level too: The moniker “Obamacare” is, and was intended to be, a mis-attribution.)
As I’ve been writing since the days of the Big Dig Culture, the State House is an absolute buck-passing machine, even better at producing excuses than legislative sausage. This is ironic, since actual legislative power is wielded by so few hands.
Transportation still needs money: For the maintenance backlog; for capital projects; for expansion; for climate resilience; for driving down emissions. You can’t study your way out of that. When you experience the crumbling MBTA, you know that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. That was a deliberate and ongoing choice by your legislators.