First an aside. When did "revenue" replace "tax" in the every day vernacular? Without knowing for sure, I feel like it started only a few years back. First it was a sly evasion, almost a euphemism. "We need to look at revenues" became a cautious way for a politician - Governor Patrick and President Obama come to mind - to broach the subject of new taxes without saying the word "taxes." Over a short time, though, "revenue" has eclipsed "tax" in common usage, both in DC and on Beacon Hill.
It sounds so benign. And "no new revenues!" sounds so irrational. Anti-growth even. Which of course is part of the reason behind this rhetorical substitution.
Anyhow, what brings this to mind currently is the discussion going on in the Patrick Administration about a whole slew of new taxes and fees associated with how we get from place to place.
Here are a fun handful of excerpts from a recent State House News article titled "State panel trying to steer transportation debate toward revenues":
With hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid potentially on the chopping block and an aging transportation infrastructure prone to breakdowns, a commission tasked with evaluating the state's transportation system strategized Monday about the best way to build support for new revenue within the Legislature and among the public.Having read all that, you may be surprised to read that after the meeting where all of the above was discussed, soon-to-be-former Secretary Mullan had this to say to assembled reporters:
"I feel like a patient that's been wheeled into the emergency room. We're all doctors, and we're trying to figure out a prognosis while the patient is bleeding," said Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. "My fear is that we won't move fast enough."
To support the system, he said, "We have got reach into our wallet, no matter how painful that may be, and invest in ourselves."...
Other members of the Transportation Advisory Committee - a 28-member group appointed by Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan - warned of dire consequences if federal transportation cuts go through and wondered about the best way to build a drumbeat of support for new sources of transportation funding... at Monday's 90-minute meeting, the group largely focused on the best ways to gather support for new revenue, and no one spoke against the idea...
Alan Macdonald, who chairs the committee, described as "good news" a recent editorial in support of an increase in the state's gas tax.
Secretary Mullan said he intends to press lawmakers about the type of transportation system they'd like in their region. "For the system we currently have and for the system we want to have, reform may not be enough," he said.
After the committee meeting, Mullan told reporters that he wasn't endorsing new revenue but suggested that without it, policymakers will need to brace for fundamental changes to the transportation system."We have got to reach in our wallet... and invest in ourselves." An editorial supporting a gas tax hike is "good news." "Reform may not be enough." That's an awful lot of talk about "revenue" for a conversation that the Secretary claims is not happening.
"We can't continue to run structural deficits at MassDOT and the MBTA year after year," he said. "If that leads to a conversation about revenue, I guess that's inevitable. But that's not the conversation we've called for."
So what kind of "revenues" are being discussed in this supposed non-conversation? More SHNS:
An April report from A Better City identified a slew of potential revenue sources to help close the estimated $20 billion maintenance gap in the state transportation system - although researchers argued that the gap had likely widened since those estimates were offered. Among the revenue options offered in the report: additional motor fuel taxes, personal property tax on motor vehicles, a fee for vehicle miles traveled by drivers, emission fees, parking taxes, property taxes, the personal income tax, payroll taxes, carbon taxes, development impact fees and a local option sales tax.Phew. That's an awful lot of "revenue." But fear not. ABC's list is likely being floated out in its entirety now so that when the Patrick Administration settles into its pitch for the "revenue" it really wants, it appears mild by comparison. And as anyone who has paid attention to Massachusetts politics over the past five plus years well knows, the Patrick Administration has always been a big fan of one particular transportation-related "revenue" source: a gas tax hike.
Over the course of two (successful) statewide campaigns for Governor, Patrick steadfastly insisted that he had "no plans to raise taxes." But the Governor's fondness for a gas tax hike is well known. That's the beauty of the "no plans" formulation; it is absolutely true, right up to the moment when it is not. He gave the hike a shot in 2009, and even used the failed attempt as a selling point to his base last year.
Now he is going to give it a try again. Here's the Worcester T&G:
Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray, citing the growing cost of maintaining the state’s transportation infrastructure, said today the administration may soon be seeking an increase in the gas tax.A few things about that.
Reports indicate that the state’s transportation needs appear to be growing faster than the state can afford to repair and update its infrastructure. Mr. Murray said a discussion about raising revenues for transportation needs is coming in the next year or two.
“I think there are still a few items left on the ‘reform before revenue’ punch list, but I do think we are getting close (to needing to look for new revenues for transportation),” he said.
“I think we need to look at some type of revenue, dedicated in some manner or form, in the next year or two to meet the needs of our transportation system,” Mr. Murray said.
“It could be a combination of things” that might include a gas tax hike, he said.
Additional revenue could come in the form of higher tolls, fares or taxes, he said. Mr. Murray said he doesn't wan to see tolls and fares go up.
First, what did poor Tim Murray do to deserve being marched out in front of a tax hike just a couple of years before he runs for the big chair?
One of those "transportation needs" contributing to the growing cost of transportation in the Bay State is the costly South Coast Commuter Rail expansion that Patrick and Murray continue to promise, with no hint of a way to pay the associated $1.4 billion cost. That's a choice, and maybe a desirable one. But it isn't a "need."
And about this "reform before revenue punch list" of the LG's. Can we see it? Secretary Mullan's predecessor in 2009 infamously called the "reform before revenue" mantra a "meaningless slogan," a characterization that was essentially verified later that year when the legislature passed a 25% increase to the state sales tax, promising that a significant chunk of the new tax - er, revenue - would be dedicated to transportation. But anyhow, what's on that punch list? More importantly, what is punched on that punch list?
Yes, they eliminated the Turnpike authority and wrapped the Pike and Mass Highway into one big agency. And yes, that was a good step. Unfortunately, the Governor and his underlings view the substantive consolidation, elimination of redundant positions, etc. that could have/should have accompanied that agency roll-up as 'union-busting,' and so a good deal of the savings promised in association with their ballyhooed "transportation reform" have not materialized. Hence, the need so soon for yet another "conversation" about "revenue." Poor LG Murray is like the guy on the deck of a sinking ship. "Why man the life boats? We've just finished arranging the deck chairs!"
Liberals love to point out that a not-inconsiderable number of respected conservatives have at various times come out in favor of a gas tax increase. Charles Krauthammer is probably the most prominent. And while it is not unfair to hold him up as a legitimate, respected, conservative advocate for an increase in the (federal) gas tax, it must be remembered that there is context to his advocacy. Specifically, Krauthammer proposes what he calls a "net-zero" gas tax increase; meaning the increase would be off-set by a reduction in taxes elsewhere, leaving a "net zero" increase in government revenue. Posed that way, the increase would be a clever way to force re-prioritization of government revenue toward what all agree is an urgent need - rehabilitation, maintenance and expansion of transportation infrastructure - and not simply another shovelful of tax dollars into the bottomless maw of government.
Taken in isolation, the gas tax is among the more rational components of overall tax policy. It is consumption-based. Properly-conceived, its revenues are dedicated solely to spending that is directly related to that consumption - roads, bridges, etc. It is applied to a commodity whose price is highly variable in the first place, proving that the market can absorb periodic increases (always with the expectation of a later drop, of course). On the spectrum, it is easy to understand why Governor Patrick - and now LG Murray - return repeatedly to the gas tax. The arguments in favor can be compelling.
And we're looking at it as a way to pour more funding into a fully dysfunctional statewide transportation system that is up to its (our) eyeballs in debt incurred in considerably part to pay years of exorbitant salaries and health and retirement benefits to its own employees.
Back in March 2009, the first time the Patrick/Murray tandem made a run at the state gas tax, Senate President Murray said the following:
“As public officials, we should not be so careless or quick to throw tax-payer money into a broken system.” She called a rush to boost the state’s gas tax, which Gov. Deval Patrick has posited as the only way to avoid a March 29 turnpike toll increase, premature.True then. Truer now.