Should the state allow regional transportation ballot initiatives?
Kimberley L. Driscoll
Mayor of Salem
Should the Legislature allow local voters a say in funding transportation projects with local taxes? The answer is emphatically yes.
Voters are best equipped to decide whether proposed transportation projects are right for their communities, and whether to raise dedicated taxes to fund them. Whether you’re frustrated with how long it takes to commute even small distances, want better bike and walking accommodations, or support enhanced community shuttle options, it’s clear that we can and must collectively do better to address our transportation needs.
I urge the Legislature to enact, and the governor to sign, a new law bringing Massachusetts in line with 41 other states where municipalities or counties can bring better transportation choices directly to voters. In these states, seven out of ten times voters have said “yes.”
These are projects large and small, such as enhancements to the world-class Los Angeles transit system, Ohio’s recreational trails, or one of my favorites, the initiation of a Seattle fast ferry. Improvement projects may be paid for with sales, fuel, property, or other existing taxes. It’s a local decision, and the taxes are usually subject to renewal by voters, providing direct accountability.
Why do this in Massachusetts? Because local leaders know what’s needed. Mayors, city councilors, selectmen, and town managers are well positioned to identify potential projects, like road and bridge upgrades, safer cycling and walking, or improved transit.
And residents are well suited to decide if the benefit is worth the investment. We trust local voters. Our state leaders should, as well.
One feature of this pending legislation is that municipalities may form districts to jointly fund regional projects. Regionalism provides scale and encourages collaboration by sharing planning, costs, and benefits.
However you feel about taxes, what everyone wants is the confidence that tax dollars are used wisely and for their intended purpose. Regional ballot initiatives provide taxation with representation, along with accountability and transparency.
This bill is not a panacea for transportation. State and federal leadership – and funding – are vital to important transportation upgrades, but this legislation is a step Beacon Hill should take to empower cities and towns and the people who live within them.
Newton resident, member of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”
Ben Franklin’s verse rings true today, especially in his native Massachusetts. Taxes arise, taxes endure. The only thing more permanent than a government agency and bureaucrat is a tax.
Once in place, a new tax takes on a life of its own, even when its original purpose has long since expired. Think the Mass Turnpike. Three decades after it was paid off, the tolls not only remain, but have increased exponentially.
Now some well-intentioned state legislators want to start a new tax. Their bill would allow cities and towns, separately or through a regional district, to raise local taxes for — you guessed it — transportation projects. To do that would require a local ballot initiative. And the taxes raised could be a sales, property, or excise tax, sort of like a local add-on to the ones we already pay. But they would only be temporary taxes, you see.
The timing of this couldn’t be more inane. Thanks to Governor Charlie Baker’s sound fiscal policies, state revenues for fiscal 2018 are projected to end up $1.2 billion above estimates, with a projected surplus of $150 million-$200 million. And still Democratic politicians cry that the state’s transportation costs can only be met by more taxes.
This despite the fact that the average Massachusetts resident already forks over 10.3 percent of his or her income in state and local taxes. But to the entrenched pols on Beacon Hill, it’s not enough. More is always better. As in: more of your money.
Yet given that our legislators, over the governor’s veto, last year approved an $18 million pay hike for themselves, judges, and constitutional officers, they’re shrewd enough to realize that another tax hike wouldn’t sit well with the public.
Solution: Shift part of the state’s fiscal obligation to cities and towns by making it easier for them to raise their own local taxes by ballot initiative. A slick PR campaign warning of cracked bridges or reduced bus service can often entice even the most frugal to vote for what seems like a tiny sum. Except that it never ends there.