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Gas tax hike plan draws critics

Members of state Senate say 19-cent increase is too high

By Matt Viser and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 28, 2009
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High-ranking members of the Senate say they are opposed to Governor Deval Patrick's plan for a 19-cent increase in the gas tax, saying any hike should be considerably smaller and linked to cost-cutting by the state's transportation agencies.

But while there is reluctance in the Senate to embrace a 19-cent increase, there does not appear to be any consensus among House members. This week, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo did not rule out giving the governor his full hike and said only that he wants to keep any increase "as low as possible." Among a number of legislators on both sides, estimates of possible alternatives to Patrick's plan have ranged from 9 cents to 14 cents.

"Let's put it this way: I think there's a lot of resistance toward going up to 19 cents," said Senator Steven Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. "These are difficult times. And asking more from the citizenry in terms of money is going to be difficult."

Panagiotakos is among the more powerful senators as the head of the committee that reviews and approves state budgets.

State Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who cochairs the Legislature's Transportation Committee, said he does not support a 19-cent hike because not enough is being done on money-saving changes.

"It's much too high, particularly in light of the state of the economy," he said. "I'm not prepared to have a conversation on revenues until we have a conversation about reforms. And if that means holding revenues hostage to reforms, that's what I'm going to do.

"The Boston elite are talking about a gas tax increase," Baddour added. "But working families in all parts of the Commonwealth are saying otherwise."

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce endorsed this week raising the gas tax by at least 19 cents. The Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists - a union representing 3,000 people, many of whom work in the road-construction industry - also came out in support of increasing the gas tax, but did not specify a size.

Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray sent a letter to supporters yesterday, trying to rally them to support the administration's proposal.

"No one likes to pay more in taxes, and the governor and I would not ask people to pay more unless we thought it was necessary," Murray wrote. "I believe, however, that the people of Massachusetts are fundamentally fair-minded and will take the time to look past the headlines and think about the real issues at stake here."

Lawmakers from the western suburbs and others whose districts are along the Massachusetts Turnpike are arguing strongly for a gas tax increase, largely to offset or eliminate tolls. They are joined by those whose constituents use the tunnels under Boston Harbor. In areas where residents do not pay tolls, the gas tax is deeply unpopular.

"I've heard anything between 0 and 19 cents," said Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who cochairs the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee. "There is not a magic number at this point."

Although Senate President Therese Murray, has not yet come to a conclusion, several lawmakers have suggested alternatives.

One senator who asked not to be identified because negotiations are preliminary, said a critical mass in the 40-member Senate had begun to develop around a 9-cent increase.

Getting the number into single digits may be more palatable to sell to constituents, and the rationale appears to be similar to marketers who charge $9.99 for a meal: 9 cents simply sounds a lot smaller than 10 cents.

But Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr. said yesterday that he would not support a compromise on the tax gas tax at 9 cents.

"It's not worth doing, and I wouldn't recommend that the governor sign it," he said in a phone interview while he was traveling in the Berkshires in an attempt to build support for the plan.

The Legislature has scheduled four public hearings to discuss Patrick's bill and one filed previously by the Senate.

Those hearings will take place around the state over the next two weeks. The first will be 4 p.m. Wednesday at Springfield Technical Community College.

"Some people think it's too high," said Representative David Linsky, a Natick Democrat. "Some think it's too low. People are all over the map on this. It's a question of how much you want to accomplish in fixing the transportation infrastructure, and how much do you think in a time of recession the public can bear."

DeLeo said yesterday that House leaders are still studying the governor's plan.

"Bottom line, if we're going to get it passed, we're going to have to try to keep it, you know, as low as possible," he said.

DeLeo declined this week to criticize the governor as harshly as other lawmakers, who say they have been boxed in by the timing of Patrick's introduction of the gas-tax legislation, which coincided with a Massachusetts Turnpike Authority vote to increase tolls.

Patrick has said the toll hikes would disappear if the gas-tax increase is adopted.

"It would have been preferable if we had a little more time to deal with the legislation," DeLeo told reporters outside his office.

When asked if the House can act quickly enough to avoid a toll hike, he said, "We have to. I'm not sure how much of a choice that we have."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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