What do you do when your favored ballot question gets struck down by the courts? Push for more ballot questions, apparently.
That’s the tack for transportation advocates, anyway, who were dismayed when the Supreme Judicial Court last month struck down the so-called millionaire’s tax. The proposal promised new money for transportation
and education, but it was deemed unconstitutional and never made the ballot.
So now advocates are pressing the Legislature to quickly pass a bill that would allow a whole new breed of ballot questions across the state.
Sponsored by state Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, the bill would let cities and towns join together and create regional ballot questions that would raise certain taxes to pay for local transportation projects.
“An opportunity for voters to weigh in on transportation was taken away,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the nonprofit group Transportation for Massachusetts. “This is a way to place that power back into voters’ hands.”
In Massachusetts, activists who believe the state needs more transportation funding haven’t had a lot of recent success at the statewide ballot box. Before the millionaire’s tax was struck down, voters in 2014 reversed a plan to boost the gas tax by tying it to inflation rates.
Still, experts believe regional initiatives are often more palatable to voters because the projects are guaranteed to be closer to home.
Under the bill, a regional transportation tax could appear on the ballot as soon as the 2019 municipal elections, Lesser’s office said. But it would probably take far longer because it can take years to develop project plans and prepare for an election.
Several other states already allow voters to take a regional approach to transportation funding. Major transit expansion projects in Colorado, southern California, and Washington state were funded by regional initiatives.
Some supporters of the millionaire’s tax had leaned on it as a potential way to fund major transportation proposals around Boston, from a Blue Line extension to Lynn to the fabled commuter rail link between North and South stations. But supporters of Lesser’s bill say it could also raise funds for simpler needs like road maintenance.
At a State House event Wednesday, a band of regional planning officials, activists, and elected leaders pressed lawmakers to pass Lesser’s bill before the two-year legislative session wraps up July 31.
It’s a big ask for a Legislature that already has a tight deadline and a very full plate. The budget for the new fiscal year, for example, is already well overdue. And the proposal already has its critics: The Massachusetts arm of the National Federation of Independent Business tweeted that the idea would create “a regional patchwork of new taxes” on business owners.