Talk of Inspection Fee Surpluses May Have Subtly Influenced Committee Vote on Bottle Bill

Friday, July 27, 2012

Whoa, how come nobody told me about that?

That would be a good way to characterize the way many legislators reacted this spring upon learning there was a ton of money parked in the state’s vehicle inspection account.

The legislature, you may recall, used $51 million in surplus vehicle inspection revenue to help close an end-of-fiscal-year deficit at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

When that move was made, several reps and senators from beyond the metropolitan area complained about using fees collected from motorists all across the state to avert a Boston-centered debacle.  Then most of them voted, reluctantly, to go along with the rescue plan.

“I will be supporting this because I understand how badly the T needs this influx of funds right now,” Rep. George Peterson, a Republican from Grafton, said on June 13.  “But we need to come up with a long-term strategy.  Because if we don’t, the next time we come here to throw some money at the problem, I won’t be that supportive.”

Like ill will, reluctance tends to linger in the legislature -- and to manifest itself in unexpected policy ideas.  Take, for example, what happened with an amendment proposed this week by Republicans to the Senate version of the transportation bond bill, Senate Bill 2360, An Act Financing Improvements to the Commonwealth’s Transportation System.

Amendment #61 would have added language to Section 28 of Chapter 6C of the Massachusetts General Laws requiring the Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to include in its annual fiscal report to the legislature information on any accounts with surpluses, and to supplement that information with an analysis and an explanation of “whether the surplus is necessary to the viability of the fund.” 

Further, Amendment #61 would have required MassDOT to inform the legislature if it anticipated future expenditures from surplus accounts, and to provide the legislature with “any recommendations to eliminate an unnecessary surplus, including but not limited to reducing the amount of the fee or funding source of the fund; provided, however, that, six months prior to filing the report, the department shall provide notice of any funds with a surplus and the amount of the surplus.”

Speaking on behalf of the amendment on Tuesday (July 24), Senator Michael Knapik, a Westfield Republican who is highly regarded in the upper branch, said most legislators were “surprised” to learn in June there was a surplus in the vehicle inspection account fat enough to blot out a huge chunk of the T deficit.

“We probably should not be running surplus accounts that accumulate unbeknownst to the legislature,” said Knapik, as quoted in the State House News Service.  “If we knew there was $51 million, wouldn’t it have been nice to reduce the cost of inspection fees.  I think what was the most objectionable was the very existence of this fund that we didn’t know about…We are looking for a report that would be filed every year.  What is in the fund?  What is the fund about?  Does a surplus even need to exist?  That truly is the question.”

It’s probably going too far to call the Senate discussion on Amendment #61 a debate, especially since it was so brief.  At the end, the measure failed on a lopsided 5-32 vote.  Knapik was joined on the losing side by fellow Republicans Bob Hedlund of Weymouth, Richard Ross of Wrentham, and Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester.  Only one Democrat voted yes: Jim Timilty of Walpole.

That result mirrored what happened in the House of Representatives on June 13 when Richard Bastien, a Republican from Gardner, tried to tack an amendment on the T bailout bill that would have reduced the annual vehicle inspection fee from $29 to $25.  The surplus in the inspection account proved the fee was too high, Bastien said.  Though it may have been a plausible argument, only 33 reps voted for the fee cut, while 119 voted against it.

The actions of June 13 in the House and of July 24 in the Senate appear to have been abject defeats for the minority party on Beacon Hill.  If I were a Republican legislator, I don’t think I’d see it that way, however.

Instead, I’d be tracing -- with only a hint of satisfaction on my face -- invisible lines between those two discussions on the inspection fee account surplus and the 10-7 vote on June 14 by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy to send a proposed expansion of the state’s Bottle Bill “to study,” effectively killing the measure in this session.  

(The Bottle Bill expansion, which would extend the state’s five-cent refundable deposit on beer and soda containers to fruit juices and other non-carbonated, bottled or canned drinks, recently enjoyed a brief revival as an add-on to the Senate version of an economic development bill, but is almost certainly destined to fail in the House, where the chairman of the economic development committee, Joe Wagner of Chicopee, has branded it a “tax,” and says it does not belong in the bill.)

It is my theory, which I have no way of proving, that a majority of House members is skittish about expanding the Bottle Bill because unclaimed bottle deposits generate a surplus of about $40 million a year, money that winds up in the state’s general fund, and Bottle Bill foes never tire of calling this surplus a tax.  Their skittishness increased, I believe, every time Bottle Bill foes pointed out that the expansion would likely inject an additional $20 million in unclaimed deposits per annum into the general fund.

The scales in the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy may have come down against an expanded Bottle Bill on June 14 in any event.  But in that close 10-7 vote, I see the June 13 discussion on the “unknown” inspection fee surplus as possibly decisive.

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