Governor Deval Patrick’s proposed $1.9 billion tax increase to boost spending on transportation and education is drawing a cautious response from area legislators.
In interviews, some praised Patrick for starting a discussion about tax reform and funding needed investments. But most said they are still evaluating the proposals, and several voiced sharp opposition.
“I just feel it’s difficult in this fragile recovery to justify raising taxes on anybody,” said state Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat. “Within the confines of our state constitution, the governor is trying to create a more progressive tax structure along the lines of our federal taxes. I’m not fundamentally opposed to that, but I’m concerned it’s being used to increase so much.
“I’m glad the governor is focusing on transportation and education, which are two of state government’s main functions,” Ehrlich added. “Our transportation system is currently outdated and financially unsustainable. . . . The details as to what is urgent, aspirational, or inadvisable will be worked out in the legislative process.”
Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said he is “deeply concerned that as we try to emerge from one of the longest and most difficult recessions in the history of the country that the governor would propose $1.9 billion in new taxes to burden folks struggling to be able to maintain a household budget.”
“Equally disturbing is that the proceeds of that increase would go well beyond what we need to balance the state budget. It would be used to finance a tremendous expansion of state spending that is unsustainable,” Tarr added.
State Representative John Keenan, a Salem Democrat, wants to learn more.
“Before I take any position one way or another, I want to know all the details,” said Keenan. “But I have to commend the governor for taking the long view and telling us what the problems are and how he thinks we should fix them.
“It’s about time we all acted like adults and solved the problem of transportation deficits. . . . Whether it’s the comprehensive steps he put forward or something in between remains to be seen, but it’s a worthwhile discussion and debate to have.”
State Representative Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, denounced the proposal.
“The governor can put whatever type of bow around this plan he wants, but the fact is it’s a $1.9 billion tax increase, the largest in Massachusetts history, on the struggling and working families of the Commonwealth,” he said.
The plan, which Patrick announced at his State of the State speech Jan. 16, would raise the income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent while reducing the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.25 percent.
The proposal also calls for gradual increases in the gas tax, MBTA fares, turnpike tolls, and Registry of Motor Vehicles fees, as well as the elimination of 45 personal income tax deductions, for an overall $1.9 billion annual tax increase.
State Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives, a Newburyport Democrat, said that “lowering the sales tax is good for people in a struggling economy. But I’m still assessing the options for making up that revenue if the sales tax is lowered.”
Another Democrat, state Representative Jason Lewis of Winchester, said: “Governor Patrick has started what I think is an important and necessary conversation about tax reform.”
In evaluating the governor’s plan and any others, Lewis intends to look at four criteria: How well does it simplify the tax system; how does it contribute to making the state more competitive; is it more progressive than the current tax system; and does it raise enough revenue to meet the state’s transportation and other needs.
State Representative Paul J. Donato, a Medford Democrat, said: “I listened to the governor’s speech with great interest, and there are many things that have to be discussed. We all realize transportation and education are probably the most important things we have in our legislative session and we are going to try to find solutions to accommodate both of those.”
State Representative Christopher G. Fallon, a Malden Democrat, said: “I have some significant reservations and concerns, but I still have got to study it further before I say something conclusive.”
State Representative Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican, is opposed. “I’m very concerned that for the last 10 years we have grown our budget by [about] a billion dollars a year,” he said. “I think we need to . . . really identify the entire budget and where the additional dollars have gone over the last 10 years before we are looking at higher taxes.”
But state Representative Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat who also represents Burlington and part of Chelmsford, has an initially favorable impression.
“It’s up to us at the Legislature to break down some of the numbers . . . but the idea that we need to look at sources of revenue that would be dedicated to specific needs I think is important,” he said.
“The governor’s plan would protect the people that are least able to pay and still raise some revenue so we can protect businesses and our citizens from a transportation system that will otherwise crumble,” Gordon said.
State Representative Lenny Mirra, a Newbury Republican, agreed the state needs to invest in infrastructure needs. “Where I disagree with the governor,” he said, “is that he wants to increase the income tax. I think we should . . . leave tax rates where they are.”
Also opposed is state Representative Kevin J. Murphy, a Lowell Democrat.
“I’ve voted against every tax increase proposal in the past several years and, quite honestly, changed my position on casino gambling in recognition of the need for increased revenues.”
“I think he’s right when he says we need to address our infrastructure problems,” Murphy added of Patrick. “But I was hoping the casino revenue would help that out, rather than raising the income tax.”
State Representative Paul Brodeur, a Melrose Democrat, calls himself “an agnostic” on the governor’s plan.
“Unlike what happens in Washington, the governor has done something we haven’t seen for a long time,” Brodeur said. “He has laid out an ambitious agenda and said exactly how he wants to pay for it. That in politics is a remarkable thing.
“Our job as a Legislature is to go through it, see what we feel is worthwhile, and what we can afford and see how any tax increase will impact the middle class.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.