For four decades, the Commonwealth has been trying to figure out how to have a comprehensive transportation system. Comprehensive, well maintained but affordable. The issues don’t change: what to provide,who should pay, where the money should come from. For the most part, it’s been patch, patch, patch. We love our cars but for 22 years haven’t been willing to increase the gas tax to repair our roads. We love the idea of mass transit, but we haven’t been willing to do what it takes to modernize the system, even when it is we (and the state economy) who will benefit from it.
Now Deval Patrick has raised the stakes, putting several options on the table. Give him credit for articulating a big vision. Massachusetts has the oldest mass transit in the country, and it no longer works reliably. Give the Governor credit as well for trying to reform the tax system to be less regressive, funding his transportation initiative and education by- among other things – reducing the 6.25 percent sales tax by two percentage points, raising the income tax from 5.25 to 6.25 percent, eliminating a reported 45 deductions but doubling the personal exemption. ($8,800 for an individual taxpayer, $13,600 for a head of a household, and $17,600 for a married couple filing jointly)
Despite the logic of the theory behind this revenue raising proposal, its scope kind of takes your breath away. Our economy recovery is hardly dynamic. We are three weeks into the end of the federal payroll tax “holiday,” taking a bite out of weekly pay checks. Locally, some communities, including my own, are facing a (needed) Prop 2 1/2 override. Is the Governor’s new state revenue initiative bold, or just overreaching in the context of all this? (And, by the way, how much will his overall state budget depend on as-yet-unproven revenues from the casino and slots gambling industry?)
The Governor says his tax changes would be fairer than the current system. Those earning $37,523 or less would save $100-$200. Those earning $37,523 to $60,414 would pay $100 more. So far, so good. Those earning between $60,414 and $102,886 would pay $400 more. Those earning more than $102,886 would pay a whopping $3200 more. In Massachusetts, $102,886 does not make you a wealthy person. The state’s cost-of-living puts it 41st in affordability. Only seven states paid more than Massachusetts in combined state and local tax burden. Clearly we have a high quality of life here, but what is the right balance of what we pay and what we get?
This is clearly a legacy play by the Governor, but will the legacy be a much improved transportation system, more early childhood education and longer middle school hours, or will it be a return to Taxachusetts? I look forward to hearing the legislature, the governor, interest groups and thoughtful commenators debate these issues.
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