Lawmaker pushes local ballot initiatives for transportation money

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

BOSTON — When one door to transportation revenue closes, there’s an opportunity to try to open others, according to a Longmeadow Democrat who is making an 11th-hour push for local ballot initiatives to fund buses, highways and bike paths, an option available in most other states.

The Supreme Judicial Court determined last month that a constitutional amendment to levy additional taxes on the highest earners to generate funds for transportation and education was ineligible for the November ballot.

Proponents of the so-called Fair Share Amendment had hoped that measure, if passed, would generate around $2 billion to spend on those two areas.

“There was a lot of hesitancy to engage in revenue items while the Fair Share Amendment discussions pended. Now we have finality on that. We have the feedback from the SJC. This really elevates one of the most specific items we can do right away to get those investments to transportation,” Sen. Eric Lesser told advocates at a Wednesday briefing on his bill (S 1551/H 1640). He said, “We were waiting on making big revenue decisions until that was completed. Now it’s completed. We saw the answer. It wasn’t what I personally would have liked to have seen, but this is a great plan B.”

Lesser’s bill would enable local communities to band together and ask their voters to support new regional taxes to pay for local transportation projects.

The legislation is before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, which does not have a vote scheduled on it with only three weeks remaining before the end of formal sessions. Legislation has also not moved in the House.

By a 33-7 vote, the Senate tacked on a regional ballot initiative measure to a municipal modernization bill in 2016 but the House did not, and the provision did not make it into the version of the bill that became law.

Marc Draisen, a major backer of the approach who is the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, rallied those gathered in a Senate meeting room to make progress on the legislation this session to put it in a better position next session, which begins in January.

According to the MAPC, the bill would authorize communities to raise sales, property, payroll or other taxes.

Even if the bill becomes law, it takes around three to five years for communities to formulate a regional transportation ballot initiative, according to Draisen, who said that in states that have legalized that type of process, those ballot questions have about a 70 percent success rate.