As Governor Deval Patrick seeks to build public support for his proposed $1.9 billion tax increase, the plan is proving to be a tough sell among area legislators.
Two months after the governor first called for the new revenues to fund transportation and education investments, some area lawmakers last week praised Patrick for starting a conversation on how to support those needs. But in interviews, many expressed wariness or opposition to the plan as proposed, citing in particular its size.
"I think it's an ambitious proposal that is unlikely to gain support sufficient to pass, at least at the numbers he's proposing, a $1.9 billion tax increase," said state Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat. "My sense is that the majority of legislators, myself included, think that's simply too much given the struggles that many of the families we represent are currently experiencing."
Joyce said he recognized "the need to continue investing in our infrastructure, in our economy, and I support making prudent, targeted investments, but just not to the extent the governor is proposing."
The governor's tax proposal is part of his fiscal 2014 budget plan, currently before the House Ways and Means Committee. The panel is scheduled to release its proposed budget, including any revenue proposals, on April 10, according to Rachael Neff, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
"The governor has proposed new investments in education and transportation that are critical to our state's future, financed by making our tax code fairer and simpler," Glen Shor, state Secretary of Administration and Finance, said in a telephone interview. "These new public investments will expand economic opportunity and prosperity in every corner of the Commonwealth, both in the short term and the long term."
State Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, said he appreciates that Patrick "is focusing the attention on some of our transportation funding issues." But Hedlund, who opposes the plan, said, "I totally reject the governor's claim that it's a myth the tax increase would hurt the economy.
"If we are going to increase taxes to such a great extent, we had better be putting that revenue to good use, and the governor's plan does not do that," Hedlund said, contending, for example, that while the governor proposes capital investments such as the South Coast rail extension, there are no funds in place to cover the future operating costs.
The governor's plan 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, and eliminating 44 personal tax exemptions, for an overall $1.9 billion annual tax increase that would be put toward enhancing the state's transportation system and educational initiatives.
More than 50 economists recently signed a statement in support of the plan, arguing that the state’s future prosperity is threatened by chronic underfunding of its education and transportation needs. A group of educators and union leaders has also publicly backed the plan.
But state Representative Lou Kafka, a Stoughton Democrat, said he is "not favorable to the governor's plan. I think it goes a bit too far." He said he will be interested in reviewing the alternative plans he anticipates will come from legislative committees.
State Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat who is Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Revenue, said he is "still in the information-gathering stage. I want to be very cautious and deliberative."
"I certainly want to invest in education and transportation, so I am taking a slow look at it to determine what is the actual need for investment and . . . if we determine we do need more revenue to make those investments, what would be the best way to do it," said Rodrigues, whose district includes Freetown, Lakeville, and Rochester.
State Representative Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican, opposes the plan.
“I think with the current revenue trends and re-prioritizing spending, we could tackle the annual budget deficit,” he said. “But it’s the additional $1.9 billion I question. When you hook at household income dropping 1.8 percent in Massachusetts this past year, is this really the right time to initiate such an aggressive spending plan?”
State Representative Garrett J. Bradley, a Hingham Democrat, said he is listening to the governor make his case, "but I'm also listening to a significant amount of my constituents that have concerns with all or a vast majority of it. We have needs in this state and wants in this state, and at this point we need to focus on what the needs are and not what the wants are in a difficult economic time."
Representative Jim Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat, credits the governor "for having a 10-year plan. It just remains to be seen if it's something people can afford."
Cantwell said he believes his constituents would be most receptive to additional taxes if they were linked to targeted investments such as the $6 million the state recently spent to add lanes and a traffic light on Route 139 in Marshfield, and the $120 million the state would spend on seawall and other coastal construction in a proposed bond bill.
State Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, said he supports the goals outlined by the governor, but opposes the plan as written because "a lot of the tax exemptions that are eliminated would impact working families."
Pacheco, whose district includes Bridgewater, Carver, Marion, Middleborough, Raynham, and Wareham, said he would like to explore other possible revenue options, including having the state take advantage of a 2008 law that enables it to institute "carbon pricing," or requiring polluters to pay for greenhouse gas emissions.
State Senator Tom Kennedy, a Brockton Democrat, is keeping an open mind.
"The appetite is not very strong among the legislators I've talked with and some of the groups I hear from in my district for the entire package the governor has laid out," he said. "But obviously, the governor may be aiming high knowing you don't always get 100 percent of what you wish for."
As vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, Kennedy said, he is concerned about the condition of the state's transportation system and the impact to public safety of not properly maintaining it. But "what form of revenue raising needs to be done — that remains to be seen," he said.
Representative Angelo D'Emilia, a Bridgewater Republican, is not taking a firm position yet but said, "To ask for $2 billion in additional revenue is quite a lot to ask at this point where the economy is still fragile and people are concerned about paying their mortgages, keeping a roof over their heads, and putting food on the table."
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.