When Steven Aylward’s four daughters were public school students in Watertown, he heard rumblings about budget problems and decided to look into how the town’s school system was run for himself. He didn’t like what he found.
“There was all sorts of waste,” said Aylward, who soon won a seat on the Watertown School Committee and eventually became its chairman. “They always struggled to find money for the special education department, but nobody wanted to look at whether we could save money somewhere else. They had this attitude like, ‘We’re the school department; we know better than you.’ ”
Today, Aylward senses the same attitude from defenders of a 2013 Massachusetts law that mandates automatic adjustments to the state gasoline tax based on the Consumer Price Index. So, as he did when he ran for school committee, Aylward decided to do something about it.
Along with several hundred volunteers and Republicans in the Legislature, Aylward gathered about 100,000 signatures to put a question on the November ballot that would repeal the so-called indexing measure.
The issue is a natural fit for Aylward, a Republican organizer whose day job at Cass Information Systems in Lowell involves helping large companies optimize their transportation budgets, including spending on fuel.
“I get to see every day how the cost of transportation is passed on to the consumer,” Aylward said. He gestured to the shelves at a coffee shop where he spoke with a reporter, explaining, “everything in this store came here on a truck.”
And as someone who believes strongly that governments tend to use up all the resources they have regardless of need and that eliminating waste should always come before raising revenue, Aylward found the issue is in his ideological wheelhouse. For him, the thought of handing over large sums of money to the state Department of Transportation without earmarking it for specific projects is downright revolting.
“It’s always the taxpayer, the little guy that suffers,” he said, shaking his head. “By doing a lousy job keeping costs down, we’ve destroyed the idea of prosperity. We nickel and dime people and then hit them with big costs in health care and education. . . . At some point, it becomes overbearing.”
Aylward and his grass-roots group, Tank the Gas Tax, found an ally in state Representative Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican in his second term.
Diehl thinks the issue is a winner. It’s simple to explain, and the obvious impact of gas prices on family budgets makes it an easy sell to voters, he said.
“It’s visceral; people get it. They pump gas twice a week,” he said. By voting “yes,” “people feel empowered to actually have a voice in how money is spent.”
Aylward and Diehl stressed that despite the accusations of their opponents, they do believe in paying to maintain roads and bridges. It is the method of raising those funds through automatic increases that is wrong, they say, because it reduces accountability, oversight, and transparency.
“This is the only tax that goes up without a vote,” Diehl said. “It flies in the face of what democracy is all about. If the state needs more money for bridge issues, that’s fine, let’s vote on it. Once you give the DOT money, they’ll spend it however they see fit. We need to create accountability so they at least have to ask for it.”
Aylward and Diehl also dispute claims by opponents that eliminating the increases would hobble road and public transportation projects, pointing to a budget surplus in fiscal year 2013 and a large reserve fund as evidence of the state’s strong financial health. That money can easily absorb the $1 billion the indexing measure is expected to raise over the next 10 years, they argued.
Perhaps surprisingly, few big businesses have signed on to the indexing repeal effort. Corporations, especially those that bid on government contracts, may be reluctant to stick their necks out in a Democratic-dominated state, Aylward speculated.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker has said he favors repeal. The Democratic candidates support indexing, but seem less than eager to champion automatic tax increases in an election year. Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley drew widespread criticism when she flubbed an answer to a question about the issue, mistakenly saying the state’s gas tax was just 10 cents per gallon. (After a 3-cent hike last year, the first increase since 1991, the tax is 24 cents per gallon.)
Diehl and Aylward are confident the repeal will pass, in part because Democrats outnumbered Republican signatories of the petition to put the question on the ballot 2 to 1, they said. The message about the unfairness of “unsupervised,” automatic hikes has particular bipartisan appeal and could be a strong hand for proponents.
“When we were out getting signatures, even people who didn’t want to talk to us at first stopped in their tracks when they heard the word ‘automatic,’ ” Diehl said. “Republican, liberal Democrat, it didn’t matter. They said, ‘No, that’s wrong.’ ”