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Legislature’s tax plan lets opportunity pass

While Governor Patrick’s $1.9 billion transportation, education, and tax-reform plan was sure to be a hard sell in the Legislature, lawmakers should take the far-reaching package as a basis for a productive negotiation. Instead, House and Senate leaders gave Patrick’s strategy the stiff arm Tuesday, unveiling a counterproposal that focuses solely on transportation — but, over the long term, doesn’t accomplish enough even in that one area.

Announced by Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and the heads of the Legislature’s budget and transportation committees, the plan was a signal to Patrick that lawmakers aren’t interested in the tectonic changes he’s proposed in the state tax system. Lawmakers would instead raise $500 million a year by hiking the cigarette tax, changing some business tax rules, and adding 3 cents to the gas tax. The multi-year plan also relies on a higher level of toll and MBTA fare increases than the governor’s does.

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Half a billion dollars may sound like a lot, but it doesn’t meet the long-term challenges Patrick laid out — neither the promise of advancing early-childhood education for low-income kids, nor making higher education more affordable, nor addressing the state’s transportation needs in a comprehensive way. Obviously, lawmakers feel that a combination of smaller tax increases will sit better with the electorate than a hike in the income tax. But over time, this limited approach could do more to breed cynicism about government than a larger revenue hike; it perpetuates the sense that lawmakers will constantly reach into voters’ pockets for more money while providing faltering and inadequate services.

If taxpayers are being asked to dig deeper, they deserve more in return than a partial recovery from the financial mess of the Big Dig era. The bills from the megaproject put such a strain on the state’s transportation agencies that even routine repairs suffered. Yet while the legislative leaders’ plan would seek to close a long-term funding shortfall, it appears to treat some major repair projects, such as the long-overdue replacement of MBTA subway cars, as optional. And it doesn’t make good on legally binding commitments — such as to extend the Green Line to Medford — that the state made as part of Big Dig environmental mitigation agreements. Failing to fund the extension doesn’t mean the T won’t have to build the project; it just means Massachusetts is unlikely to get federal money to defray the tab.

There’s been some talk of setting performance goals for the state’s transportation bureaucracy that, presumably, could make it easier to justify additional funding in the future. Yet given the trepidation with which legislative leaders are approaching tax increases in the current discussion, it’s hard to imagine that they’d want to do so again next year or the year after.

This approach perpetuates the sense that lawmakers will constantly reach into voters’ pockets for more money while providing faltering and inadequate services.

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Far better to bite the bullet this year, and begin addressing the state’s needs in a way that would build confidence in state government — showing taxpayers that they actually get more when they pay more. The Legislature needn’t go as far as Patrick in remaking the tax code. His proposed funding hike for public higher education might wait until the universities make further cuts on their own; and even his ambitious plans for transportation expansion and early childhood learning need not be funded in whole.

But lawmakers should recognize that a rare opportunity to make crucial investments is passing them by. Patrick has made the case that a combination of tax hikes and investments will improve the state’s competitiveness, and polls suggest voters are open to a modestly higher income tax. The confluence of a Legislature and governor willing to bring in new revenues comes along rarely. Both need to make the most of the current political climate.

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