Shirley Leung

With millionaires tax off the ballot, how else do we pay for transportation and education?

It is time to figure out how to better fund public transportation.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
It is time to figure out how to better fund public transportation.

Thurston and Buffy must be clinking champagne glasses at their Weston spread now that the Supreme Judicial Court has thrown the millionaires tax off the ballot.

But what about the rest of us?

We’re marking the occasion by riding the unreliable T and sending our kids to chronically underfunded schools. The proposed tax on personal income over a $1 million would have raised about $2 billion a year for transportation and education.


As a matter of public policy, I was torn on the measure. With Beacon Hill reluctant to raise taxes, progressives had little choice but to stick it to the wealthy via a voter initiative. A recent WBUR poll indicated the ballot petition would have passed easily.

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Yet I feared the unintended consequences that entrepreneurs with billion dollar ideas might decide to start their companies elsewhere. Or that the well-to-do would simply figure out accounting tricks to avoid the tax.

Ultimately, five business groups led by the Massachusetts High Technology Council sued to stop the petition, arguing that it was unconstitutional. In a 5-2 ruling Monday, the SJC sided with the business coalition.

So where do we go from here?

Forgotten in this contentious fight has been that progressives and the business community have a common agenda: Investing in transportation and education is how you create a thriving economy for all.


They may not always agree on where that money comes from, but now is the time to come together and figure things out.

Otherwise, we’re going to become a Commonwealth of desperate measures — whether it’s trying to pass a tax on high earners, host the Summer Olympics, or compete for Amazon’s second headquarters — in the hopes that it will get Beacon Hill’s attention to fix our crumbling infrastructure.

It’s encouraging that transportation advocates and business leaders seem ready to get to work.

“The business community has been pretty progressive on transportation,” said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition that supported the so-called millionaires tax.

Here’s how: Gas taxes are used to fund roads, bridges, and other transportation projects. Business leaders in 2014 fell short in their attempt to defeat the repeal of gas tax indexing, but in the process, showed they’re not always antitax or antifee.


Dempsey’s group has been a huge proponent of smarter tolling, the idea of tinkering with toll prices to ease congestion at rush hour. It’s something the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce — which opposed the millionaires tax — also believes is worth exploring, along with a review of the gas tax.

“We are not opposed to all taxes,” added Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and whose group was a plaintiff in the SJC case. “In fact, we have supported new revenue for transportation and we will likely do so again.”

But if Beacon Hill is going to raise taxes, McAnneny said lawmakers have got to build voter support and show why more money is necessary.

“It’s never an easy task,” said McAnneny. “You have to lay the ground work.”

The prospect of a millionaires tax made it hard for anybody to talk about other funding mechanisms for transportation. They were told to wait.

“That made a lot of sense yesterday,” Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council told me Monday. “But it doesn’t make sense today.”

Draisen has moved on to Plan B, which is getting Beacon Hill to pass state Senator Eric Lesser’s bill to legalize regional ballot initiatives for transportation projects.

“They are the way America builds transit,” said Draisen. “We want to have an opportunity in Massachusetts.”

It’s how car-centric Los Angeles County, for example, is raising $120 billion over the next 40 years to construct 15 new rail lines. The regional ballot initiative — passed in 2016 by about 70 percent of voters — increased sales tax countywide by a half-cent. The effort, called Measure M, found broad support among business and labor groups.

There were 436 transportation ballot measures across the country in 2016, totaling at least $250 billion, and about 70 percent of those proposals passed, according to the Eno Center for Transportation.

A regional ballot initiative, for instance, could allow a group of North Shore communities to raise property taxes to expand ferry service to Boston. Or a group of communities could vote for a local assessment to help fund high speed rail between Boston and Springfield. This doesn’t mean municipalities would pick up the entire tab for a project but something akin to a down payment.

Senator Lesser tells me the time has come to get his bill done.

“It’s an absolute nightmare getting around. Everyone is sick of it, and they want solutions,” said Lesser, a Democrat from Longmeadow. “They want concrete ideas, and this is one of them.”

As for finding additional revenue for education, it may just require old-fashioned political will to dedicate more money from the state coffers. The millionaires tax would have made it easier for the state to close over time a $1 billion-plus gap in education funding, but its disappearance won’t stop Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz from trying to secure money.

“The millionaires tax was very appealing. For most of the voters, we were talking about other people’s money,” said Laura Perille, president of EdVestors, a Boston nonprofit that focuses on school improvement. “Now we are talking about our money. Our money is always harder.”

Yes it is, and it can’t be the excuse to let government off the hook when it comes to funding transportation and education at the level commuters and our kids deserve.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not fully reflect Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz’s position on plugging the state’s education funding gap. She believes it can be accomplished with or without the millionaires tax.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.