House approves measure to fund transit system
But margin not veto-proof
House lawmakers passed a $500 million transportation bill Monday night, but failed to get the margin needed to protect it from Governor Deval Patrick’s threatened veto, intensifying a confrontation over how best to to address the state’s pressing transportation needs.
Patrick, who favors a more ambitious $1.9 billion plan for transportation and education, spent the weekend lobbying legislators to vote against the more modest House bill. The efforts were successful enough to split House Democrats’ votes on the measure, a rare moment in a legislative body in which the Democratic majority is usually united.
Without unity, the 105 votes needed for a veto-proof margin proved elusive. The final vote was 97 to 55.
Voting against the House bill were Democrats who want to hold out for a more expansive transportation bill, joined by Republicans critical of new taxes on gas, tobacco, and business-related computer services laid out by the bill.
“The bill before us today did not go far enough,” said Representative Carl Sciortino, the Medford Democrat who led much of the left-leaning opposition to the bill. As the legislation moves to the Senate, he said, “I’m hopeful our leaders can take a deep breath and have communication.”
The $500 million would provide the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority with enough funding to prevent fare hikes in the coming year. The measure also provides funding for the state’s regional transit authorities.
In a statement after the vote, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo expressed satisfaction with the results, but did not mention the bill’s failure to garner the support that would override a veto.
“I am proud of today’s House vote for a carefully calibrated revenue package,” said DeLeo. “With this vote, we address the needs of business and commuters who rely upon our transportation system in a way that encourages economic growth while minimizing the pain on families and employers.”
Many transportation advocates said they were disappointed with the bill, supported by both House and Senate leadership, because it falls short of Patrick’s funding plan, which would raise money for long-term infrastructure projects such as the expansion of South Station, a rail line to Fall River and New Bedford, and the Green Line extension project.
Debate over the bill on the House floor prompted impassioned discussions. Representative William M. Straus, chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, appeared at the podium several times, pleading with Democrats who said they would not support the lawmakers’ bill.
Straus maintained that legislators were committed to the same goals as those outlined in Patrick’s proposal, but wished to pay for the effort with different tax measures.
Patrick’s plan calls for $1.9 billion annually in transportation and education funding, generated by raising the income tax by 1 percent while cutting the sales tax by 1.75 percent. The lawmakers’ plan relies on new taxes on gas, tobacco, and business-related computer services.
“Is there a perfect bill? I have to ask that, because I hope it causes you to rethink your position,” Straus said.
If Patrick successfully vetoes the bill, Straus said, there is no guarantee that any funding measure will pass, and Massachusetts commuters will be left in the lurch.
“I myself don’t want to play some sort of roulette game or game of chance with the people we represent,” Straus said, in trying to persuade dissenters to vote in favor of the bill.
Representative Brian S. Dempsey, a Democrat, repeated arguments that the bill is a more measured and fiscally prudent than Patrick’s more sweeping proposal and said he was committed to preserving the state’s bond rating. “Moody’s is throwing up the caution flag to us,” he said.
Democrats who said they would vote against the bill worried about the narrower scope of the House plan, echoing Patrick’s criticism of it.
Sciortino, who expressed support last month for Patrick’s $1.9 billion revenue plan, said the House bill is not ambitious enough to achieve long-term change.
Legislators also spent much of the day discussing amendments that would remove major elements of the tax measures, all of which failed.
Minority leader Bradley H. Jones, a Republican from North Reading, said he was stunned to hear Patrick call $500 million in new tax revenue “too conservative.”
“It is all too much to ask the people of the Commonwealth,” Jones said.
Representative George N. Peterson Jr. said the gas tax, which would amount to $12 to $30 per year for an average resident, would have an outsized impact on local businesses struggling to survive.
“I know three cents a gallon isn’t a lot of money; people say it’s like a cup of coffee,” said Peterson. “But it has a negative impact on our economy.
Sciortino disputed Republican claims that improvements could be made on the MBTA and elsewhere without raising taxes. “The idea that there’s money floating around that we can transfer to transportation . . . it’s just not real,” he said.
Minutes before debate began on the bill, about 100 protesters gathered outside the State House, calling on legislators to provide greater funding to the MBTA to make it possible to reduce fares for The Ride, the T’s door-to-door car service for senior citizens and people with disabilities. Fares for the The Ride were increased from $2 to $4 last year.
“For over a year now we’ve been fighting to make sure they raise revenue, that they do that in a way that holds down increases for low- and middle-income folks,” said Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council.
“Instead, they come up with a few dollars that’s going to come on our backs, and they refuse to roll back The Ride fare which has left thousands unable to access doctors and their communities.”
After chanting at the State House gates, seven of the protesters lined a crosswalk on Beacon Street, blocking traffic. Police arrested four of the protesters, including Villers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of votes needed for a veto-proof margin. The total is 105 votes.