As Massachusetts House leaders prepare to debate solutions to the state’s transportation woes, they face an inconvenient truth: Increasing the gas tax remains an unpopular option among voters.
A poll conducted for a labor-backed organization found that only 11 percent of voters supported adding 15 cents to the state’s gas tax, while 74 percent were opposed. The online poll of 600 likely voters was taken on behalf of advocacy group Raise Up Massachusetts, which backs a separate effort to increase taxes on the wealthy.
The group’s poll, conducted in August, didn’t show much support for congestion pricing, either. When asked if they support raising tolls by 20 percent at rush hour, only 20 percent of respondents supported such a move, while 61 percent opposed it. (No mention was made about the possibility of reducing tolls at off-peak times.)
A separate survey of voters conducted for the MassINC public-policy think tank in August showed slightly more support for an unspecified gas tax increase, but still only 26 percent were in favor, with 68 percent opposed.
So what will voters support? Little surprise here: the so-called millionaires tax. More than two-thirds — 69 percent — told Raise Up pollsters they back a 4 percent additional tax on annual income over $1 million.
Representatives for Raise Up shared the results with a group of liberal House members on Wednesday, in advance of an upcoming floor debate on transportation funding. The debate is supposed to happen before Thanksgiving. But this is such a politically thorny topic, there’s some talk that it could get pushed off until 2020.
You can’t blame House members if they happen to be dreading this vote. There’s a reason state lawmakers have only raised the gas tax by 3 cents in nearly three decades, to 24 cents a gallon, while the cost of a subway pass has tripled. (Bus fares have gone up by even more.) A measure that would have automatically increased the gas tax by the rate of inflation was repealed by voters in 2014, despite a concerted push by the business community to keep the indexing intact.
With workers and employers stressed out about traffic jams and unreliable transit service, this political hot potato is back on Beacon Hill.
There’s notably less consensus among business groups this time around. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce recently refereed months of discussions on transportation revenue. Finding common ground on the gas tax was tough. The Boston chamber is pushing a 15-cent increase, but others were in favor of different increases. Some still haven’t decided. And some don’t want to see any at all.
A gas tax would be just one part of any legislative package; other possible proposals involve adding tolls in places that don’t have them now and increasing the modest fee on Uber and Lyft rides. (Meanwhile, in Connecticut this week, Governor Ned Lamont is again trying to bring back tolls to that state, although he has scaled back his ambitions from an earlier failed attempt.)
Gas-tax supporters already face criticism on the right. Governor Charlie Baker on Monday said he wouldn’t support a “big increase” in the tax. The Baker administration instead is pushing its $18 billion bond bill and a multistate effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by adding a fee to motor fuels, which would likely drive up costs at the pump.
Now, the gas tax is under fire from some on the left, too.
Harris Gruman, executive director of the SEIU Massachusetts State Council, says Raise Up would only support a modest gas tax increase or other charge on commuters if it accompanies changes in how businesses are taxed. Closing corporate tax loopholes, Gruman said, would ensure a more equitable approach. One possible example: a tiered minimum corporate tax, ensuring a minimum for larger companies that’s beyond the current floor of $456 a year. Another: a state tax that could capture a portion of profits shifted offshore by big multinationals.
Raise Up wants something else, as well. The coalition of unions and activist groups continues to push that 4-percent surcharge on incomes over $1 million. They call it the “Fair Share Amendment.” The idea would be to spend the windfall on transportation and education.
Several business associations thwarted an effort to put the Fair Share tax on the statewide ballot once before, in the courts. But the proposal is back, and its proponents say they have filed it in a way that would withstand another legal challenge. Still, it requires a constitutional amendment, a drawn-out process that means voters wouldn’t get to decide on it until fall 2022, at the earliest. The Legislature has cast one supportive vote and will need to do so again, but no sooner than 2021.
It can be easy to tax the very rich, at least when compared to taxing everyday drivers. But no one said fixing this transportation crisis would be easy.