By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Though it was not a part of his original transportation financing plan, Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday said it would be a mistake to block automatic gas-tax increases in the future and criticized the law's opponents for accepting money from the gas tax in their hometowns.
Proponents of repealing the law indexing future gas-tax increases to the rate of inflation starting in 2015 are confident that they have cleared the initial signature hurdle to place a question on the 2014 ballot. They plan to turn in roughly 90,000 certified signatures to the secretary of state on Wednesday afternoon.
"I think the ballot initiative to undo the indexing of the gas tax is a mistake. Everywhere around the commonwealth people understand that we've got to reinvest in our transportation system in order to sustain and, indeed, accelerate growth," Patrick said.
Opponents of the law, including a number of Republican lawmakers, mounted a volunteer signature-gathering effort to start the repeal process, and collected over 120,000 signatures.
Calling the indexing measure a "forever tax," opponents have argued it inappropriately absolves elected lawmakers from having to vote on and justify future tax increases. The question critics hope to put to voters in 2014 would not touch the three-cent gas-tax increase that was also part of the broader transportation financing package approved by the Legislature. That tax increase went into effect in August, increasing the state gas tax to 24 cents.
"While it was not my first choice, the Legislature in their due authority selected the gas tax and a way not to have to come back to it every 15 minutes," Patrick said.
"It hasn't been updated in many, many years, so I think the indexing is wise. I think it was done in the right way, and I think those that are advocating that the indexing be undone need to answer for why it is they keep showing up for all the ribbon-cuttings every time there's a new bridge or a new road project done, but don't seem to want to participate in how to pay for it."
Patrick press aides were not able to tell the News Service who the governor was referring to.
Steve Aylward, a Republican State Committee member and the lead petitioner, said he had no idea who the governor might have been talking about.
"I don't really know the last time I was at a ribbon-cutting. I don't think I've ever been to one. I think indexing can never be done the right way because indexing is an automatic tax increase. Any time you get into automatic tax increases you're getting into a situation that can't take into account the economic conditions at the time, so for him to say that is blatantly absurd," Aylward said.
The Legislature enacted its transportation financing plan over Patrick's veto estimating that by 2018 it would generate up to $800 million in new revenue for transportation. Patrick said at the time he found the investments authorized by the bill insufficient to meet the state's needs, and since then another $160 million a year has been eliminated by the repeal of a sales tax on software services that tech business leaders revolted against.
Democrats in the Legislature rejected a Republican-backed plan, pitched as an alternative to tax hikes, to invest in transportation by dedicating a portion of state tax collection growth and patching together existing revenues and savings from government reform measures.
The administration estimates that over the next decade inflation adjustments to the gas tax starting in 2015 will generate a total of $890.6 million for transportation, starting with $5.7 million next year and compounding over time to $182.6 million in fiscal 2024.
Asked whether another proposed ballot question that would make casino gambling illegal created budgetary worries for his administration, Patrick said his last budget due in January would be unlikely to count on any gaming revenue.
"Our budgets have not relied on the state's portion of casino revenues. They have relied on the licensing fees, so it's not something we're speculating about and we're not going to start that," Patrick said.
The Repeal the Casino Deal campaign said Monday it was on track to turn in 75,000 certified signatures on Wednesday, more than the 68,911 to qualify for the ballot. The Supreme Judicial Court is also expected to hear the group's appeal in early 2014 of Attorney General Martha Coakley's ruling disqualifying the question from the ballot, according to organizers.
Following President Barack Obama's declaration that his administration's healthcare.gov website "will work smoothly for the vast majority of users," Patrick said the state Health Connector's site, which had been beset with similar technical problems, was also on the mend.
"If you're not eligible for a subsidy, it's a pretty simple experience right now and it has been for a while. If you're a small business shopping for your employees, end-to-end it's not a problem. Because of the variety of different subsidies, that's where the complexity comes on the back end and that's getting better every day too," Patrick said.
The governor also addressed his decision to begin accepting his full $151,800 salary, portions of which he had foregone in recent years.
"We're running a surplus. I think it's fair," Patrick said.