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Patrick hints at hike in gas tax

Signs budget, says levy on sales may not suffice; Cites need to bolster transportation system

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By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 30, 2009
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Governor Deval Patrick signed a budget yesterday that imposes more than $1 billion in additional taxes on Massachusetts residents and visitors, most of it through the first increase in the state sales tax in 33 years, even as he declined to rule out a future boost in the state gas tax.

Patrick, whose earlier proposal for a 19-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax was largely ignored by the Legislature, continued to make the case yesterday that the tax could be necessary to put the state’s transportation network on sounder financial footing.

“We haven’t done that yet. We haven’t finished that work yet,’’ Patrick said, when asked if he would keep pushing for a gas tax. “And whether that’s the gas tax or something else, we’re going to have to face those issues, I think sooner rather than later.’’

Patrick aides said afterward that the governor had no current plans to push for a gas tax increase.

The governor made his comments as he signed a $27 billion budget that includes increases in the state’s sales, alcohol, satellite television, meals, and hotel taxes. Even while putting his signature on the budget, Patrick continued to try to distance himself from a first-in-a-generation increase in the state’s sales tax, which on Aug. 1 will rise from 5 percent to 6.25 percent.

“The sales tax is not my first choice, and not the preferred course,’’ he said. “It’s the course that the Legislature pursued. I preferred, and still do, more targeted revenue measures that raise, from a particular source, revenue for particular needs.’’

In signing the budget, which is $400 million less than the plan House and Senate lawmakers approved earlier this month, Patrick vetoed nearly $150 million worth of spending proposals. He also cut $217 million in funding for county sheriffs, although that funding will probably be restored through a bill that consolidates sheriffs departments throughout the state.

The budget takes effect tomorrow, the first day of fiscal year 2010, although the Legislature will probably attempt to override several of Patrick’s vetoes.

The budget cuts funding for noneducation local aid, in some cases up to 15 percent, but provides a record-high $4 billion in education funding for cities and towns, due in part to $167 million in federal stimulus money. The budget relies heavily on one-time sources of revenue, using $1.7 billion from federal stimulus funding and $215 million in state reserves.

Spokesmen for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray said they were still reviewing Patrick’s plan. Even while issuing a series of vetoes, Patrick submitted a $269 million supplemental budget, which includes $70 million to restore healthcare coverage for 30,000 legal immigrants that the Legislature had cut.

“This is without question an austere - and in some respects, painful - budget,’’ Patrick said in a late-afternoon press conference held in his office. “It contains many unavoidable spending cuts and they, many of them, will have a painful impact.’’

In his vetoes, Patrick cut from a wide range of spending areas, including $25 million for senior care, $7.6 million for trial courts, and $250,000 for the State House park rangers.

He also sliced roughly 5 percent of the funding for children’s mental health services that were ordered under a federal class action lawsuit known as Rosie D. Those services were supposed to start rolling out today.

“The families have been anxiously awaiting these services and it’s incredibly disappointing that the governor is not maintaining his commitment,’’ said Lisa Lambert, executive director of the Parent Professional Advocacy League, which represents about 4,000 families.

Patrick’s budget also included $400,000 to restore funding for a Washington, D.C., office that critics have said is a waste of funding when Massachusetts has a 12-member Congressional delegation. The Legislature had eliminated all funding for the Washington office.

“While raising taxes on families by a billion dollars and cutting services to the needy, Governor Patrick is trying to waste money on a Washington office when he has a Congressional delegation full of Democrats,’’ said Tarah Donoghue, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Republican Party.

Patrick had said he would agree to the vast bulk of the lawmakers’ spending and budget plan only after they agreed to a significant overhaul of the state’s ethics, pension, and transportation laws. Over the past two weeks, House and Senate lawmakers approved plans on each of those items, all but forcing the governor to sign onto their sales tax proposal.

A portion of the new tax revenue from the $1 billion in tax increases will prevent a previously planned toll increase on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and could help alleviate fare hikes for MBTA riders.

But Patrick continued to say yesterday that that approach may not provide enough money for a permanent fix to the state’s transportation problems, which include agencies in massive debt and crumbling roads and bridges. Patrick’s plan for a 19-cent-per-gallon increase would have raised about $500 million for transit, compared with an estimated $275 million in new sales tax revenue slated for transportation.

Patrick aides stressed that there was no current plan to push for a gas tax hike, but reiterated that the governor thinks there should be a long-term financing plan for the state’s transportation network. They would not specify what funding source that would be, or when they would push for it.

“The governor has been clear: He backed a dedicated revenue stream to support the state’s long-term transportation needs. We will have to revisit this challenge at some point down the road,’’ said Joe Landolfi, Patrick’s communications director. “He also said that it is a crummy time to ask people to pay more. And he is not pushing for a gas tax increase on top of today’s increase in the sales tax.’’

Kay Lazar of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.