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Lawmakers bring budget discussion close to home

With the clock running out on the fiscal year that ends Sunday, legislators told a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce gathering Friday that their $34 billion proposed spending plan for next year could survive a threatened gubernatorial veto.

The budget, which was expected to be hammered out late Friday night or this morning, is tied to a $500 million transportation package that would raise the gasoline tax by 3 cents a gallon and the cigarette tax by $1 a pack while also restoring turnpike tolls on the western six exits of Massachusetts Turnpike. Gov. Deval Patrick, who had originally sought $1.9 billion in new taxes for transportation investment, has said he will propose an amendment to the Legislature’s transportation bill, which would raise taxes by $504 million next year, increasing to $805 million in Fiscal 2018 for transportation funding.

The additional money would also come from a tax on computer software, which Patrick opposes because of its effect on the computer industry.

“We need to improve our transportation infrastructure,” said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst. “He wanted a 10-year plan, and we have a solid plan for the first five years, and not as dynamic in the next five, but there’s still capacity in the second five years, and we’ll see how that plays out.”

The new plan provides for a “forward-funding” mechanism for Franklin and other regional transit authorities, potentially saving them millions of dollars in interest they’ve had to pay for borrowing in anticipation of being reimbursed.

Another disagreement between the Legislature and the governor is over Chapter 90 road assistance money. Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said the governor proposed raising road aid from $200 million to $300 million to fix roads and bridges and jump-start the economy, but then refused to release more than $150 million, in effect cutting the money, which comes from gas taxes and should be used to help maintain local roads, said Kulik.

Kulik, who is vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the coming year’s budget — with local aid and Chapter 70 school aid both seeing increases, will benefit from about $400 million state revenues that have been greater than projected, with additional surplus revenues going into the state’s reserve account.

Responding to a question about a more progressive income tax, instead of continually raising the cigarette and gasoline taxes, Kulik said “The governor’s proposal was presented as a sweeping progressive tax change, but the more we looked into that, the more we saw a different picture.” He said the proposal would have eliminated dozens of “very common deductions” that were important to many people, including those for child care, student loans and replacing septic tanks.

“I would dare say there aren’t a lot of people in Massachusetts who earn $60,000 who think they’re really wealthy,” Kulik said. “The discussion will continue on fair taxes, who should pay what and what’s the most reasonable way to pay for services that people desire. The governor’s tax plan, while very ambitious and progressive on its surface, didn’t stand up to that kind of scrutiny.”

Rosenberg, meanwhile, said that despite his six-time sponsorship of a constitutional amendment to allow the same kind of graduated income tax used by the federal government and many states, none have passed, but he hopes to resubmit it and — along with other legislators including Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange — look at other ways of making the tax code fairer, such as by eliminating tax deductions and credits that have outlived their usefulness.

Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said he has been named to a special subcommittee of the Legislature’s Higher Education Committee that will look into student loan indebtedness, while Rosenberg said a priority of his is to come up with welfare reforms “to really get at the real problems, and to not be chasing myths and beating up on people.”

The ranks of people on transitional assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have swelled with laid-off workers whose unemployment insurance benefits have run out but have been unable to find work, Rosenberg said, “You’re talking about people who get up and go to work who are in this economically insecure period, finding themselves, unfortunately, out of work, out of unemployment insurance benefits and need some help,” he said. “There’s a substantial portion of the transitional assistance population that are actually people who’ve lost their jobs, but can’t find another job.”

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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