Sunday, May 26, 2024

110712i-Dave-RogersGov. Deval Patrick began this legislative session with an ambitious proposal to invest in transportation and education. To fund these objectives, the governor proposed raising $1.9 billion in additional revenue with a major tax reform. While his plan had flaws and I would have favored certain changes to it, the broad conceptual framework was a good starting point for all us to discuss some of the most pressing challenges our society faces and how to solve them.

In a much anticipated response to the governor’s plan, the House and Senate took the unusual step of announcing an alternative plan jointly. I was disappointed to learn that it was far narrower in scope than the governor’s articulated vision.  Many veteran legislators told me the fact that it was a joint plan – fully hashed out by leadership in both bodies before being publicly presented –meant any opposition to it was likely to be fruitless. But for a variety of reasons I was not convinced the debate was over.

The Joint H/S Plan focused on transportation and raised $500 million from increased gas (3 cents/gallon) and tobacco taxes as well as some new business taxes. The plan also called for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and state Department of Transportation to contribute “own source” revenue to improve their balance sheets (for example, by increasing fares, fees and tolls or finding savings in their budgets). The Joint H/S Plan is designed to accomplish three main objectives: closing the operating deficit at the MBTA; forward funding the Regional Transit Authorities; and ending the practice of paying certain MassDOT employees from the capital budget. Moreover, the plan frees up some revenue for other expenditures after accounting for the “own source” revenue from the transportation agencies and by ending the practice of paying employees from the capital budget.

Despite these positive steps, compared with the governor’s plan, I did not think the Joint H/S Plan was a long-term fix to the commonwealth’s transportation and infrastructure needs (nor did it expressly discuss educational or social service needs). For instance, it is not entirely clear there would be adequate revenue to buy badly needed new subway rail cars, make important repairs or upgrades at the T or fund the green line extension, perhaps jeopardizing federal funding. Moreover, the plan did not specify which capital projects might be funded, so I was being asked to vote for new revenue without fully understanding how it might be spent.

Simply put, the Joint H/S Plan does not meet the challenges of our time. The desperate need for transportation and infrastructure funding has been documented meticulously by innumerable public policy experts.

We all work hard for our money and want to keep as much of it as we can. But we all also have a shared responsibility for the well-being of the larger society. Standing by while our infrastructure crumbles and our transportation system slowly declines is not an option. Investing in transportation and infrastructure – if done right – yields a significant return. The Joint H/S Plan would ask taxpayers for more without really solving the important issues, though, and is a half measure at best.

The table was set. My first major vote was not going to be an easy one. The governor announced that he would veto the measure in the form proposed by the Legislature. He asked members of the House who shared his goals to stand with him and vote against the Joint H/S Plan. On the other hand, I was warned that – if the Legislature’s plan failed – there would be no revenue at all. The pressure to vote with leadership on Beacon Hill is considerable. But after talking to countless people in government to further understand the policy implications (and listening to many voices in in our community), I was convinced that if supporters of the governor’s bolder vision could prevent the Joint H/S Plan from passing with a veto-proof majority, the plan would improve in the Senate. I should note that other progressive Democrats who shared my goals came to a different conclusion and, even if I disagree with their reasoning, I understand their decision.

Debate started at 1 p.m. April 8 and we did not vote until 11:30 that night. It was a dramatic day, with the outcome uncertain. As debate proceeded on the House floor, I was again strongly encouraged to support the plan. Yet I voted “no,” and while the plan passed (97-55), it lacked a veto-proof majority (all Republicans and many anti-tax conservative Democrats also voted “no”). I readily acknowledge and respect the hard work the House and Senate leaders put into crafting a plan. My “no” vote was simply a request that they work together with the governor to make it better.

Almost as soon as the House vote was over, the revenue number started to rise in discussions in the Senate. Gov. Patrick personally thanked me and specifically told me he was convinced the plan would improve in the Senate at least in part because I took a stand. On April 13, the Senate voted for a plan that will direct closer to $800 million a year to transportation and infrastructure (and likely other important needs) rather than the $500 million debated in the House. To be clear, we still don’t know where this debate will end up until the House and Senate conference committee comes up with a final plan and the governor weighs in. But it is rare for a freshman legislator to have an impact early on, and I believe this vote allowed me to do so.

State Rep. Dave Rogers, 24th Middlesex District