Beacon Hill policymakers have long known that they must address the state’s underfunded, debt-ridden transportation system.
But with his big new tax-and-spending plan, Governor Patrick isn’t attempting just to fix transportation.
He’s trying to reinvent the wheel.
His transportation and education agenda doesn’t reflect the tough choices that tight times require, but rather is an attempt to slip the surly bonds of fiscal gravity, the better to indulge liberal daydreams.
That marks a disappointing departure. Heretofore, Patrick and the Legislature have done a solid job on fiscal discipline. Yes, we’ve had one substantial (sales) tax hike, but during Patrick’s tenure, the growth of state government has tracked quite closely the rise in personal income. That means the size of the state’s public sector really hasn’t increased relative to the private sector.
Under Patrick’s new plan, however, that would change.
Annual spending would jump by about $2.5 billion, an increase of 7.5 percent, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, whose fiscal figures I’ve used in this column. That would outstrip the rise in personal income, projected at 4.7 percent, and start to change the growth-of-government trajectory.
Patrick’s plan would also spell a substantial increase in the state’s tax take. When fully phased in, it would raise another $1.9 billion annually in tax revenue.
To corral those new revenues, Patrick is proposing a complex reworking of the state tax code.
Consider: He wants to cut the state sales tax by $1.4 billion, while raising income tax revenue by $1.1 billion and corporate taxes by $460 million. He’d also add another $220 million in taxes on tobacco, candy, and soda.
Further, by re-engineering exemptions and deductions, he aims to give a tax cut to about half of state filers, while substantially raising the tax burden on upper earners.
There are several highly problematic aspects to all that.
Although Patrick says his tax package won’t return us to Taxachusetts, it would move the Commonwealth from third to first among the states based on personal-income-tax revenue collected as a percentage of personal income.
His proposal is essentially a back-door attempt to turn the state’s flat income tax into a progressive one. In that context, it’s worth noting that voters have rejected ballot questions aimed at establishing a graduated income tax five times in the last half-century, most recently in 1994, when the idea was resoundingly defeated.
Lastly, it doesn’t make particular sense to cut the sales tax. Although sales taxes are often considered regressive, by exempting most food and clothing purchases, as well as medicine and services, ours mitigates that problem to a considerable degree. Judged by revenue raised as a percentage of personal income, that tax clocks in at only 42nd among the states. In other words, the governor wants to lower a tax whose effect is comparatively mild while increasing one that takes a relatively large bite.
Keep the sales tax as is, and everything gets simpler, because you start with $1.4 billion more revenue. Instead, Patrick would in essence replace that amount of sales tax revenue by asking more of higher earners and squeezing more out of businesses, which already have legitimate competitiveness concerns in this state.
Now to Patrick’s new spending. About half a billion in the next fiscal year, and $1 billion thereafter, would go for education. But as I’ve previously written, the governor wouldn’t use that large new infusion of dollars to leverage much in return, a reality that has left education reformers highly skeptical.
On the transportation front, the big new road and rail projects Patrick is proposing range from clearly crucial to desirable but not essential in tight fiscal times to the stuff of wish-list whimsy. That said, his MBTA fix and road-and-bridge repair-and-maintenance plan aren’t far afield from what a special transportation commission recommended several years ago. But if he had focused just on those needs, such a program could likely be funded with a gas tax increase and other dedicated revenues, such as registry fees.
Instead, as he looks to his legacy, Patrick has offered a plan that’s clearly too ambitious for these times. In doing so, he’s inflated hopes around the state, while leaving to the Legislature the unenviable job of deciding what’s truly realistic and affordable.