Repeal eyed on ‘forever tax’ on gas

BOSTON — Activists are targeting a portion of Massachusetts’ new transportation financing law that automatically links future hikes in the gas tax to increases in the rate of inflation.
Backers of a proposed 2014 ballot question say tying tax hikes to the cost of living creates what they call a “forever tax” that increases without lawmakers having to take future votes.
“We have a tax that just went into effect that will automatically increase with no accountability, no vote,” said Marty Lamb, a former Republican candidate for state representative from Holliston.
The Commonwealth’s gas tax jumped 3 cents last week, to 24 cents per gallon, under the law pushed by House and Senate Democrats on Beacon Hill and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick.
The prospective ballot question being sought by activists would leave the 3 cent increase in place, but would attempt to nix future hikes.
Supporters say they are confident they can gather the tens of thousands of voter signatures necessary to get the initiative on the 2014 ballot. They will rely almost entirely on volunteers and hope to collect 100,000 signatures by the November deadline. The certified signatures of at least 68,911 voters are needed to make the ballot question a reality next year.
“We had a gas tax that was 8 cents lower than the national average. Now, it’s 16 cents higher and indexed to inflation,” said Richard Howell.
A group member and coordinator of the Massachusetts Tea Party Patriots, Howell says his group is focused on the task at hand.
“Our chore now is to get the 68,000 odd signatures to get this on the ballot. We’ve done this before, with 100,000 signatures in about three weeks,” he said to the media.
Since it’s formation on the social networking site Facebook on July 30, the group’s page “Tank the automatic gas tax hikes” has received over 1,000 “likes” from users on the site.
Before activists can begin collecting signatures, they needed to submit the language of their proposed ballot question to Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office to see if it passes constitutional muster. The deadline for the submission was Wednesday.
Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton) is a supporter of the question, and has said automatically linking future tax increases to inflation sets a bad precedent and strips voters of their voice on Beacon Hill.
“What tax is next that will be a forever tax tied to the consumer price index?” she asked.
The gas tax was part of a larger package of tax hikes included in a transportation financing bill. The new law also increased the excise tax on cigarettes by a dollar and imposed the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax on computer software services, one of the first of its kind in the country.
Gov. Patrick has defended the higher taxes, saying they are needed because past Republican governors chose to “starve” the state’s transportation infrastructure to help pay for Boston’s “Big Dig”. He said the revenue will help make needed repairs to the state’s aging roads and bridges.
While many Democrats aren’t completely enamored with a tax that will increase with the cost of living, the consensus among Beacon Hill Dems is that the tax is a necessary evil, and that the Commonwealth’s bridges and roads must be fixed.
“For people living in western Massachusetts who need their vehicles to make a living, an indexed gas tax is taboo,” said William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) yesterday. “I’m not a fan, but we haven’t had a gas tax increase in Massachusetts since ’91.”
Pignatelli, who worked as an electrician prior to his election to public office, said that while the tax is certainly not ideal, it is necessary to improve the Commonwealth’s failing infrastructure.
“I represent 20 communities and, in one of those towns, there are several bridges that need repairs, at the cost of $1 million apiece,” he said, referencing the town of Lee. “How can a town of only 6,000 people pay for that with only it’s own tax dollars? There isn’t a city or town in this state that doesn’t have some road or bridge in poor condition.”
Pignatelli, who also represents the Hampden County towns of Blandford, Russell and Tolland within his district, does not believe that blame should be placed entirely on the shoulders of Gov. Patrick, who has caught lots of flak for signing several unpopular taxes into law as of late, and has publicly stated that he will not seek another term in 2014.
“I don’t look at it that way,” Pignatelli said, regarding Patrick’s role in the tax hikes. “If it was completely up to him, we’d be raising taxes a hell of a lot more. But the House and Senate have agreed that we need to step up to the plate and invest in this state’s infrastructure, that it is the responsibility of the state to help with these costs.”
Regarding the “forever tax”, western Mass. Republicans are quite miffed by Beacon Hill’s decision to implement it into law.
Chief among them is Don Humason, Jr. (R-Westfield), who said that he is unsure who among Beacon Hill Democrats led the charge to implement the tax but that he doesn’t foresee any ammendments to the tax hikes unless it reaches the ballot in 2014.
“By putting it on the ballot, it lets the people decide if they want to see this tax increase every year,” Humason said.
“It (the tax) removes legislative oversight. it removes accountability. It’s problematic,” Humason said. “It’s taxation without representation, and any time we raise taxes, there should be accountability.”
Representative Nicholas Boldyga (R-Southwick) voted against it as well, saying that if the question does make it onto the 2014 ballot, the legislature could either take out the extra taxes or repeal part of the law that ties it to inflation.
According to information from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, the Commonwealth is not unique in it’s implementation of an indexed gasoline tax, as around fifteen states employ some form of index in their taxes. But the majority of those states tax only a portion of their price based on their individual state sales tax. According to the Mass. Budget and Policy Center, states like Florida and Maryland have index gas taxes which closely resemble that of Massachusetts, in that they apply a portion of their index to their cost of living, while the Bay State is set to base it’s entire tax exclusively on cost of living.

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