Last week, the House and Senate agreed on a transportation package and sent it to the Governor. House 3535 is the report of the conference committee reconciling the two versions of the transportation plan.
The legislative version of the plan rolled out in April — it was rolled out jointly by the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees. It provided less revenue to support investment in transportation than did the Govenor’s plan. The House considered the plan first and did not change the package of tax increases supporting the plan.
The Senate version of the plan did not change the tax package either, but it did allocate more of the increased taxes to transportation. It left the first year allocation fixed, so preventing any confusion about the amount of money available for the current budget, but over the next four years, it devoted more of the available revenue stream to transportation.
For me, an important improvement that occurred on the Senate floor was a further dedication of revenue in years six and seven of the plan (2019 and 2020). The Governor proposed to invest roughly an additional $1 billion per year financed by bonding. Since additional debt would issue each year, debt service to support the plan would continue to increase. To assure the kind of long-term planning horizon necessary for major transportation projects, I was concerned to assure continuing increases in dedicated revenue.
The final plan does provide specific additional amounts in 2019 and 2020. The Senate floor amendment had provided for percentage increases, but the defined amounts are comparable. I would have preferred to keep the additional Senate language maintaining inflation-adjusted dedicated revenues in years beyond 2020, but the final package does not include that protection. I did support the final package — seven years seems like a pretty good planning window and we will need to continue to legislate around the issue anyway.
In one respect the conference report is more generous than the Senate version — the Senate version required MassDOT to start raising revenue (pegged at $40 million annually) by charging utilities more for access easements (e.g., permissions to have cable conduits layed along a state road). The final version makes no assumption of increased revenue from this source and, instead dedicates more tax revenue to MassDOT. However, the option remains open to MassDOT to further raise revenues from this source.
In April, the Governor had expressed unhappiness with the scale of the original legislative investment. However, in May, the Governor signaled a positive attitude towards the Senate version of the plan which dedicated more revenue to transportation. Most expected him to support the conference report, which, while preserving the basic House-Senate tax-increase framework, did do substantially more to support transportation, coming very close to the Governor’s numbers. On the afternoon that the legislature approved the final package, the Governor threatened a veto, apparently out of concern for the expiration of the power to toll the western Turnpike. Most legislators see this as a readily fixable issue and are slightly surprised by the veto threat.
We’ll see how things play out over the next couple of weeks. As of this writing, the bill is on his desk.
Note: I had offered an amendment opening up the books of the MBTA pension fund. This language did not make it into the transportation package, but language with the same effect (actually broader) did make it into the budget agreement.