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Senate Passes Transportation Bill; Tax Debate Nears Resolution

Posted on April 15, 2013

The Massachusetts Senate approved a transportation funding bill Saturday that would dedicate approximately $800 million per year in new taxes and other revenue to roads, bridges and public transit by 2018.

TaxesThe Senate measure is larger than the $500 million package approved on April 8 by the House of Representatives, but still well below Governor Deval Patrick’s original proposal to raise $1.9 billion annually for transportation and education by raising the income tax and corporate taxes.  The governor praised the Senate bill on Saturday as a significant step toward a “safe, functional, modern transportation system to keep pace with a growing economy.”

Senators voted 30 to 5 to approve the same basic group of tax changes passed by the House – $110 million from increasing the gasoline tax 3 cents per gallon and then indexing the levy to inflation; $161 million from a tax on computer services; $110 million from tobacco taxes; and $83 million from changes to utility classification and sales sourcing.

The Senate bill adds revenue from several sources, including $40 million by requiring utility companies to pay for light poles and other structures on public rights of way, and $80 million by redirecting 2.5 cents per gallon from the gasoline tax currently earmarked for cleanup of underground storage tanks.

A conference committee will now hammer out differences between the two versions, but analysts expect the final measure to be closer to the Senate’s $800 million number. Governor Patrick had threatened to veto the House blueprint, but has not said directly whether he would sign a final bill with the Senate numbers.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts has maintained throughout the debate that lawmakers should fund transportation improvements with transportation-specific sources of revenue rather than business taxes such as the one on computer software. The association nevertheless believes that the legislation passed by the House and Senate takes positive steps toward fixing the transportation system without crippling increases to the income tax or other broad-based levies.

AIM also remains encouraged that both the House and Senate bills would require the MBTA and Department of Transportation to accelerate reasonable benchmarks for revenues, savings, and reforms. A menu of reforms approved in 2009 was supposed to generate $6.5 billion in savings over 20 years, but has so far reduced costs by just $500 million.

“Employers understand the need for Massachusetts to maintain a transportation infrastructure that supports economic growth. The Senate and House measures solve the immediate and long-term structural deficit of the state transportation system,” said John Regan, Executive Vice President of Government Affairs at AIM.

The increase in the gasoline tax would cause an average driver to pay an additional $12 to $30 per year to fill the tank. The Legislature said it did not want to rely solely on increasing the gas tax because gas consumption has declined in recent years and is expected to continue to fall.

The plan would provide “forward funding” for regional transit authorities in 2014 and allow the Department of Transportation to move all employees onto the operating budget by 2016, ending the current practice of  paying for personnel with borrowed funds.

Information provided by the Legislature indicates that their proposal to apply the sales tax to software modifications and systems design does not impose taxes on cloud-based services such as remote data storage. Downloads of computer games, music and books would also remain outside the new sales tax.

Other elements of the Senate bill include:

  • A provision directing the Department of Transportation (DOT) to move towards open road tolling on major routes other than the Turnpike.
  • A commitment to transfer up to approximately $160 million per year from the general fund to the transportation fund in years beyond Fiscal 2018. 
  • A directive to the MBTA to pursue naming rights sales on its stations and other assets.

PriceWaterhouse Coopers Analysis of Business Taxes in Murray/DeLeo Plan

Ernst & Young Analysis of Tax on Computer Services