NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 11, 2013

Ahead of debate, Senate GOP offers transportation finance plan

By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

---- — BOSTON — Senate Republicans unveiled their transportation financing plan yesterday, saying new revenue can be found in yet-to-be legalized Internet gambling and by instituting convenience tolls on high-occupancy vehicle lanes for single drivers willing to pay.

The four Senate Republicans said tax increases are not necessary to fund investments in transportation and education, and estimated the state could pull in $150 million annually if Internet gambling were legalized and $10 million a year from voluntary HOV lane tolls. Republicans also want to allow MBTA station naming rights they believe will generate $10 million a year.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, during a press conference announcing the plan, said Republicans would not support “massive tax increases and massive spending proposals” currently moving through the Legislature over the opposition of the small Republican minority.

The Senate GOP anticipates its entire plan will generate more than $2 billion for transportation and education over five years.

Tarr agrees with state Treasurer Steven Grossman, who has repeatedly said the state should be ready to explore online gambling revenues. Recent court decisions and federal action on the issue allow states to move forward, Tarr said, with both New Jersey and Delaware moving toward legalization.

“We would suggest this is an opportunity for Massachusetts to move from being behind the curve to being ahead of the curve and join some of our cohort states and develop some revenue,” Tarr said.

Online licenses would not outnumber gaming licenses awarded in the state. If four gaming licenses are eventually awarded, then only four online licenses would be given out, with priority going to existing license holders, Tarr said.

“We don’t want to be in the business of competing with ourselves. So we want to say if you bid on a Massachusetts license, you can pay more and get a little bit extra by way of Internet gaming,” Tarr said.

Republicans envision their proposal sending more money to education, including increasing the state’s contribution to UMass to create a 50 percent split between state funding and tuition and fees.

The proposal would prohibit any transportation projects that cost more than $1 billion without legislative approval.

It calls for repairing structurally deficient bridges, and putting all transportation projects on a five-year timeline, prioritizing anything that needs to be fixed.

The plan also forward funds regional transit authorities and moves transportation employee salaries to the operating budget to end the long-running practice of borrowing to pay workers.

It also calls for state lawmakers to look at an “anti-privatization” law, known as the Pacheco law, to see if it is meeting its goals, but stops short of asking for its repeal, Tarr said.

Sen. Robert Hedlund said residents still face a tough economy and taxpayers are “nickeled and dimed at every level of government right now.”

Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, said the Patrick administration and the Legislature “talked a good game” about reforms to the state’s transportation system in 2009, but many of the measures passed into law that year were never fully realized. Savings from the reform act did not hit the $6 billion anticipated, Hedlund said. He called on the Patrick administration to fully implement reforms.

“The fact we are having a debate about how high the taxes should be is the biggest insult to the six and half million people who have suffered through a withering recession and are still trying to make ends meet,” Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield).

The discussion ought to be about lowering taxes. Barring that, the debate should be centered on how little to raise taxes “not the bidding war we are engaged in today,” Knapik said.

Other elements of the plan include:

Asking the attorney general to review legal agreements that mandate projects, like the Green Line extension, as part of the Big Dig project to see if there is any room for changes, Tarr said.

Giving the secretary of transportation the authority to issue up to 300 state taxicab medallions, at $50,000 each to contribute $15 million annually.

Steering $111 million in one-time gaming licensing fees toward transportation and the same amount toward education.

House Republicans last week offered their own transportation finance plan that also does not raise taxes, but looks for money for transportation projects through leaner budgets in other areas of state government. House Minority Leader Bradley Jones said it was possible to dedicate $500 million for transportation by fiscal year 2016 with no new taxes through a 1.1 percent cut to discretionary spending.

Jones yesterday called the Senate Republican plan “innovative and creative.”

“In their comprehensive proposal, the Senate Republicans delineated a number of targeted proposals that deserve serious dialogue and discussion,” Jones said in a statement. “By approaching increased revenue without burdening the taxpayers, Senator Tarr and his caucus have illustrated that broad-based tax increases don’t have to be a foregone conclusion.”