The legislature is tying up the last loose ends of the budget process. The year’s debate about taxes and spending is coming to a close.
The final flurry came when the Governor vetoed the legislature’s transportation plan, expressing concern that tolls on the turnpike outside of 128 might come down. Under existing law, there is a possibility that the tolls could come down in 2017, reducing revenues available to fund transportation improvements. The Governor feels that this possibility undermines the certainty necessary for transportation planning, effectively reducing the number of projects that MassDOT can start in the plan.
I’m sympathetic to the Governor’s perspective. My effort through the entire debate has been to provide the largest, longest and most certain commitment of funds possible to support the transportation plan.
That said, I voted with the overwhelming majority in both branches to override the Governor’s veto and implement the legislature’s plan. There is a time in the legislative process to accept half a loaf and move on. Continued confusion over the tax plan and budget would have been very bad for state and local government.
In voting for the final package notwithstanding the Governor’s concerns about the tolls, I took consolation in the following observations:
First, it is not clear that the Governor’s concerns about the western tolls are valid — the tolls can only come down if a future Secretary of Transportation certifies that the Mass Pike is in a state of good repair. It is, in fact, in a state of relatively good repair, but it needs constant attention, so the tolls could stay up.
Second, the legislature included language in the bill encouraging the exploration of open road tolling on other routes. It is, in fact, unfair for those who ride the pike to work to pay while many others who ride other interstates don’t. There is no certainty that new tolling will work out, but the legislature has opened the door to it and a broader tolling approach could more than offset the possible loss from the western Pike.
Third, the transportation plan depends not only on the statutory dedication of funds to transportation that many of us in the legislature fought for, but also on an allocation of annual borrowing proceeds from the state’s multipurpose general obligation borrowing program. The state’s general capacity to borrow is a function of the state’s total revenue. The tolls on the western pike are well under 1 percent of that total. Looking forward to 2017, the arguable uncertainty about the tolls adds little to the intrinsic uncertainty of future revenues or the state’s total capacity to borrow.
Finally, allocations of the state’s general borrowing capacity are controlled by the Governor — the durability of the transportation plan depends inescapably on the commitment of future administrations to making it work.
So, now, the action turns to the question of what categories of projects will be included in the state’s transportation program. The legislature will play a role in determining those broad categories through language in a transportation bond bill that we will work on the fall. My goal in that conversation will be the goal that I have had throughout the session — to secure adequate funding for public transportation.