House Debate on Exempting Municipalities from Gas Tax: the Beauty Is in the Details

Friday, May 2, 2014

One of the many good things about my job is the subscription to the State House News Service that comes with it.  I’m a News Service nerd and proud of it.  I consume everything they serve up, especially this time of year, when the House and Senate are busy producing the state budget for the next fiscal year. I linger lovingly over the daily House Session reports, which provide drop-by-drop accounts of the often colorful and sometimes strange floor debates on the many, many budget amendments filed by House members.

It frankly amazes me that more of the stuff in the session reports doesn’t find its way into the mainstream media.  It’s so good.  Of course, that gives me the opportunity to put some of the neglected material  in my blog.  (I try to avoid tilling already-tilled ground.)
I’m glad, for instance, that the media seems to have totally ignored the discussion in the House chamber this past Monday, April 28, regarding a Republican attempt to pass an amendment that would have freed municipalities of their obligation to pay the state tax on gasoline of 24 cents per gallon.  Thanks to the State House News Service, I’m able to quote the participants directly and amply.

Rep. Angelo D’Emelia, a Republican from Bridgewater, filed  Amendment #43 to the FY 15 state budget, which would have exempted the state’s 351 cities and towns from the gas tax by adding some new legalese to Chapter 64A of the General Laws. 
In response, Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Democrat from Worthington, who serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Ways & Means, filed an amendment to amend D’Emelia’s amendment by requiring the Executive Office of Administration and Finance and the Department of Revenue to conduct a study of the municipal gas tax exemption before it could be formally considered by the legislature. Kulik’s measure, designated Amendment #43.1 and titled “Further to Amendment 43,” was essentially a foreign body that would kill its host.

Explaining his amendment, Kulik said, “I offer this further amendment for a number of reasons.  There are bills that accomplish this same thing pending before the Revenue Committee.  Another issue is, it’s difficult to determine what municipal use really means. It could open a Pandora ’s Box.  And the revenue estimate (of what the state would lose when municipalities were no longer paying the gas tax) is between $6 and $11 million.  But it could be more.  It’s prudent for DOR (the Department of Revenue) to look at this.  We need to know that (amount of lost revenue) before we make a decision like that.”
D’Emelia said, “I rise in opposition to the further amendment.  I believe the underlying amendment (#43) is pretty straightforward.  Municipal use (of gasoline) is easy to figure out: police, fire, highways.  By giving them this exemption, they’ll have certainty (when) putting their budgets together…This is a common-sense thing we can give to our communities.  I hope the further amendment is defeated.”

Rep. Bradford Hill, a Republican from Ipswich, said, “I stand in opposition to the further amendment.  Once again, we need to study an issue that has been brought up many times in the legislature…Eleven million dollars is what we’re talking about.  We don’t need to study the issue.  We know what the issue is.  It’s very cut and dry.  It’s $11 million that we want to help our cities and towns remove from paying…Between $5 million and $11 million out of a $33 billion (state) budget.  You talk about the municipal aid!”
Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Republican from Whitman, spoke also in opposition, weaving in the issue of indexing the gas tax to inflation.  In 2013, the legislature put gas tax indexing into law, meaning future increases will occur automatically (once indexing takes effect on January 1, 2015).  Opponents, however, have gathered enough signatures to put an indexing repeal question on the statewide November, 2014, ballot.  Voters will have the final say on the matter.

“With all due respect to the chair of Ways and Means,” Diehl said, “I’d like to say, even though the budget is going to increase for education, the gas tax increases will offset a portion of that.  This legislature has chosen to create an unknown future cost.  It’s a failed model.  For those of you who thinking (that) linking CPI (Consumer Price Index) to the gas tax is successful, let me put it this way:  If we did it (gas tax indexing) in 1993, we’d (now) have a $1.03-per-gallon (gas tax) between state and federal.  We know the cost: $11 million.  The state is bringing in unexpected revenue.  I respectfully ask that the further amendment not be passed.”
Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Republican from Billerica, said, “It didn’t take long to have our first ‘study amendment’ during our budget debate…Why don’t we just have an up-or-down vote on the amendment on the floor?”

Rep. Shauna O’Connell, a Republican from Taunton, said, “I stand in opposition to the further amendment.  If it’s too broad, let’s fix it, not hide behind a study.  This is a budget-buster for our cities and towns.  We talk about how we get more money back to our cities and towns, but (it’s) not much more, considering (state) revenues are up and the Lottery is up.  We rejected that opportunity.  You’re taking money out of one pocket and putting it into the other.  We shouldn’t be making money on our fire, our police.  It’s going to get worse with inflation.  Will local aid keep up with that? If we look at this legislature, local aid will not keep up.”

Rep. George Peterson, a Republican from Grafton, said, “I’ve been here for ten terms, and I think every single budget cycle we’ve filed this amendment to give some relief to cities and towns.  It’s failed literally 20 times.  But we’re starting this budget debate, first amendment being debated, in the classification of revenue, and it’s already going to study.  I was joking with my friend from Lexington (Democrat Jay Kaufman, House chair of the Joint Committee on Revenue). This has probably been studied more than any other issue, and I asked him if any of those studies have actually been completed.  We know how much money it is: $11 million, out of a $36 billion budget, with a revenue stream (for the overall state budget) that is $600 million beyond what’s anticipated. But we can’t find $11 million for cities and towns.”
Rep. James Lyons, a Republican from Andover, said, “The question I have is based on what Mr. Peterson just said.  There must be nine other studies out there.  Can we get the other studies?  And, Mr. Speaker, could you tell us the date this (Amendment #43.1) study will be presented?”

The Dean of the House, Rep. Angelo Scaccia, a Democrat from the Hyde Park section of Boston, came to the podium.  He was in a fearless frame of mind, per usual.  He was eager to speak candidly, bluntly.  Here's what he told an attentive House:
“I can see this is going to be a long debate.  First of all, we shouldn’t have done the further amendment.  We should defeat this (the D’Emelia amendment) on the merits.  Money for Chapter 70, circuit breaker, charter schools.  These are monies we send back to cities and towns through our budget process.  Billions!  And we’re going to talk about $11 million.  I pay the gas tax, you pay the gas tax, all of us pay the gas tax.  I wish in my city they didn’t have to run (vehicles) so much.  Oooh!  Oooh!  Oh, my mayor is going to hate me.  We have become a room of individuals, who solely represent our cities and towns.  We represent the Commonwealth!  It’s nice to be a selectman, but if you want to be a selectman, leave here and go there.  I’m going to forego the money I was going to send back to my city (through the D’Emelia amendment).  I got a call from the city’s chief executive (Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh), and he said, ‘Let this go because we don’t need it, but I want to make sure you do the $25 million for charter schools and the $17 million for the circuit breakers.’  A long week, talking about a $37 billion budget.  This is not the item the Republicans should go after.  I have some amendments coming up that I hope they help me on because they do help cities and towns, but not $11 million.  It ain’t worth it.  Let’s go on to bigger game.  I hope the Republicans are with me on my amendment when we try to snuff out tax expenditures we give out to rich people: $500 million.”

A roll call vote was conducted.  Kulik’s further amendment killing D’Emelia’s amendment via “study” was adopted on a 116-32 party-line vote.

NEXT: What happened to those Scaccia budget amendments.



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