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.
You remember it exactly correctly. Mr. Widmer is, again “inaccurate” in his description. I say “again” because this is by no means the first time he’s turned the truth on its ear.
Deval Patrick courageously proposed an approach for actually solving not only our transportation funding problem but our overall approach to taxation. Bob DeLeo and Therese Murray betrayed not just Deval Patrick, but Democratic voters across the state (and for that matter, all of us), and did so in an excruciatingly public shaming.
This episode turned me against Mr. DeLeo and Ms. Murray. It was shameful. It was appalling. It was morally repugnant (because each knew full well what they were doing).
Mr. Widmer’s characterization is like describing 9/11 as “an unfortunate building collapse”.
So I’ve got a different take on this that’s maybe a little closer to Mike Widmer’s view than to Charley and SomervilleTom’s. Here’s how I remember things.
In 2012, when Secretary Davey was building support for transportation funding, a coalition of progressive groups — many of the same ones who are now supporting the Fair Share ballot question — were advocating for a broader based revenue plan to raise $1.4 billion annually, largely through an increase in the state income tax. Coalition members were certainly aware of the challenges they’d face. Hoping to get Governor Patrick’s support, they had spent months advocating with legislators and getting endorsements from many municipal governments.
As Mike Widmer’s piece says, it was “to everyone’s surprise” when Governor Patrick announced in his state of the state a more ambitious revenue raising proposal that was made up of more moving parts (like a reduction in the sales tax paired with a bigger increase in the income tax). For the coalition, it required a quick retooling of some arguments that were already pretty complicated. I think it’s fair to say that most if not all the members of the coalition that had been making an argument for months in favor of a different proposal didn’t see that coming.
I completely agree that the meager revenue package that the Legislature passed in 2013 was disappointing. But whether through arrogance or tone-deafness (also as in –, his call to legislators to have an “adult conversation” about taxes) or something else, the Governor’s actions had the effect of undercutting the coalition that had been laying a lot of groundwork for months beforehand. That was a self-own and politicians, being politicians, notice those. .
Charley on the MTA says
Appreciate that. I should have included — as I was thinking when I wrote it — that I don’t care to defend Patrick’s managing of the relationship with the legislature, only because I don’t have any particular insight into that. I think it’s entirely possible that the Patrick admin was facing its own pushback for that initial set of proposals.
In any event, this doesn’t really change the fact that the legislature can act on its own. Patrick’s freelancing doesn’t let them off the hook.
By any, and all, definitions of the word “Governor,” it is simply not possible for the incumbent to “freelance.”
Suggesting he did so prizes progessive orthodoxy — wherever it may be you think the buck ought to stop— above that place where, in fact, the buck actually does stop. “I didn’t get what I wanted” is not the same thing as “Governor Patrick did a bad job.”
I’m not an insider. I don’t pretend to know what happened in the back rooms.
I AM, however, a resident of the state since 1974, and a Democrat. A homeowner. I’ve bought at least one monthly pass for the MBTA continuously every month since 1998.
What I know is that my “Democratic” government has been destroying public transportation by refusing to fund the vital maintenance it so desperately needs for decades. My “Democratic” government has commissioned studies and then ignored them.
My “Democratic” legislature signed off on a plan to saddle the MBTA with the bulk of the Big Dig debt and simultaneously shift its funding to a fixed portion of the state sales tax. That plan was designed to kill the MBTA. It was created by none other than Charlie Baker, and the “Democratic” legislature was happy to toss the hot potato back onto the fire for a few more years.
Deval Patrick made a courageous attempt to solve the problem. I don’t know, or actually care very much, how he managed the coalition of progressive groups he’d been talking to.
It was obvious to me, as a resident, a Democrat, a T rider, and a taxpayer, that Mr. Patrick’s plan would solve the problem. And the “Democrats” in the legislature kicked him in the nuts and then cut his legs off and then announced what their marvelous alternative.
I’m an engineer. Engineers care about outcomes. The outcome of that travesty is that the MBTA is dead, we STILL don’t have even a prayer of funding it, we’re devolving to an initiative petition to address taxing the wealthy because our “Democratic” legislature STILL refuses to do that. Oh, and Bob DeLeo is still the Speaker of the House.
In my view, Deval Patrick for once attempted to do the right and necessary thing. The “Democrats” in this state crucified him for that. It certainly appears to me that they did so out of their own selfish motives.
I reject the premise that anyone who had the best interests of the Commonwealth in mind could have participated in the betrayal of Deval Patrick.
Sometimes even legislators have to do the right thing. Sometimes even legislators have to recognize economic reality, even if their pals on the gaming commission or in Revere don’t like it.
Sometimes even legislators have to act like adults, rather than politicians.
Umm, I’m not an insider either. The coalition I referred to comprised labor, community orgs, faith groups and various others who think, like you do, that we need to revive the MBTA. If I am an insider then so are most people supporting the far share tax this time around.
I’d ask you to reconsider whether you care about how Patrick managed the progressive groups he was talking to. They were not the ones in any “back room.” Then, like now, they are the ones trying to make something good happen in their communities and in the state against strong headwinds.
I apologize for my harsh tone towards your commentary. I sometimes have to remind myself that shooting the messenger doesn’t generally change the message.
I appreciate your request that I reconsider my stance towards how Mr. Patrick managed those groups. I get that Mr. Patrick’s proposal did not sit well with them.
I remain convinced that the proposal he put forward was immensely better than what actually transpired. I don’t know what the groups want him to propose, and I don’t know why he chose something different.
Still, that’s what executives do. I want a governor, president, or other executive to listen to input, listen to advisers, and then make a decision. I think that’s what Mr. Patrick did.
It still seems to me that Mr. Patrick’s proposal was far better than the meager result that actually happened. Perhaps Mr. Patrick’s proposal went in a different direction from what had been discussed earlier. So what.
It sounds as if we each agree that the package actually passed in 2013 was “meager”. To me, that’s the bottom line here.
This all started with our collective attempt to parse Mr. Widmer’s characterization. From what he see here, it looks to me as though Mr. Davey failed to convince Mr. Patrick of his proposal.
I wonder if, for example, the “broad coalition” was in fact a power play by Mr. Davey. What do we know about the history of Mr. Davey’s proposal? I can well imagine a scenario where Mr. Davey sketched his idea, Mr. Patrick said “Nope. Not gonna fly. Do … instead”, and Mr. Davey attempted to use the “broad coalition” to change Mr. Patrick’s mind — attempted and failed.
Mr. Widmer seeks to blame Deval Patrick for what happened in 2013. I think Mr. Widmer is dead wrong.
Speaking of “the crumbling MBTA” —
A new federal report release today provides a stark reminder of just how bad things are (emphasis mine):
Pay no attention to the hand-waving and cheerleading. Our legislators have SCREWED us.