BOSTON — After months of watching Congress try to navigate the politics of raising taxes, Beacon Hill leaders have returned for the start of a new session where the issue of raising new revenue for transportation and other priorities sits near the top of the agenda.
But Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, the Gloucester Republican who was re-elected last week to his leadership post, is cautioning his Senate colleagues that raising taxes should not be the first approach to fix the state’s transportation funding dilemma, water and sewer infrastructure needs, and a $540 million midyear budget gap.
Tarr, who retained his Senate seat covering Cape Ann and several other North Shore communities without opposition in November and is beginning his 10th two-year term, said that lawmakers need to exercise “fiscal discipline” before talking about taxes and to look at reducing spending in some areas.
“I think there is probably not an acceptable level of increased taxation, even beyond the minority party, that will address transportation and water infrastructure issues,” Tarr told the News Service. “We simply have to make Massachusetts’ economy more robust if we are to have any hope of being able to pay for some of those things.”
Both Senate President Therese Murray and Speaker Robert DeLeo identified fixing transportation funding as one of their priorities for the new legislative session. While neither mentioned new taxes, the idea has been floated by some lawmakers.
“I would rather have us not be sidetracked and look at a tax increase that is only a nominal part of the solution. I would rather have us focus on the real solution, which is making the economy healthier. With regard to some of those things, we are going to have to be creative,” Tarr said. “I think that part of an adult discussion includes discipline, and discipline not to resort to an increase in taxes when there are perhaps more challenging ways to solve the problem, but I think more effective ways to solve the problem.”
Beacon Hill leaders for years have been unable to fully address a major imbalance between funds available and funds needed to keep a state of good repair in transportation and pay for expansion efforts. And leading Democrats have set the table for pursuing tax increases in the coming year by so far resisting the no-new-taxes pledge that they pronounced early the past several years. They have tiptoed around the revenue issue by embracing the position that everything must be considered without fully committing to specific tax hikes.
“We’re going to wait and see what they give us as a plan,” said Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, referring to the Patrick administration. With 37 of 40 senators returning for new terms, Murray also declined to speculate on the appetite for tax increases, saying, “They just got here. We haven’t had that discussion.”
Transportation funding needs have commanded the most attention in the build-up to the new session, but other spending needs could compete for resources, including programs impacted by still undetermined federal budget cuts.
Murray also identified a more than $20 billion gap over the next 20 years in resources needed to improve water quality and wastewater treatment as one of her priorities.
Gov. Deval Patrick is expected to produce a report by early next week detailing the size of the financing gap that must be bridged to fund improvements and maintenance to the state’s transportation system for the next generation. House Transportation Committee Chairman William Straus, who is expected to be reappointed to that post, anticipated that gap to be somewhere near $1 billion a year, about the same as the water and wastewater problem.
“What I have pointed out to people is because the (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) is such a large part of the financial question and the fact that their budget must be in by June 30, my hope is that the Legislature can deal with the whole legislative issue by July 1,” Straus said, suggesting the public might be more open to user fees than broad-based taxes funneled to agencies like the MBTA.
“My own feeling is if we are going to make the kind of investments in keeping our transportation up to date that everyone across the spectrum needs, I don’t know where within the current revenue stream in state government you can find the money,” Straus said. “It has got to be part of the discussion. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but the Legislature and the public need to have a revenue discussion.”
The transportation financing report from MassDOT will include a menu of options to raise new revenues, but the governor is widely expected to hold off on making recommendations or endorsing any revenue proposals until, perhaps, he files his fiscal 2014 budget blueprint later in the month.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Murray on Wednesday broadly addressed the issue of investing in transportation as an economic growth priority, while Republicans predictably pushed back against the idea of raising taxes before any concrete proposals get presented.
“I’d say anything and everything is under consideration now,” DeLeo said.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones called for a renewed bipartisan pledge to not raise taxes, suggesting needed revenues could be gained by broadening the tax base, rather than raising rates.
Both DeLeo and Murray made it clear that any solution to transportation funding must be equitable to all regions of the state, and not simply amount to another lifeline for the MBTA that had to be rescued last year to dilute fare increases, though hikes still took effect.
The MBTA, which backed off service cutbacks to commuter rail services last year after widespread outcry from Cape Ann residents, local government leaders in Gloucester and elsewhere, and the Cape Ann Chamber of Commece, faces another $130 million budget gap in fiscal 2014.
“I’m not willing to stand here and bail out the MBTA again unless there’s a statewide program, that’s roads and bridges and regional transit authorities, also,” Murray said.