Saturday, February 28, 2009

Penny Unwise

By shielding Massachusetts drivers/voters from a 19¢ gas tax hike, some legislators have taken to sounding like Newt Gingrich Republicans. According to the Globe, some demand offsetting reforms before they'll buy in.

The present 23.5¢ tax is middling for the nation. This would shoot Massachusetts to the top, at least until other states adjust to their own financial crises with various tax hikes.

Chief chest thumper so far is Sen. Steven Baddour (Methuen-D), co-chair of the Transportation Committee. "It's much too high, particularly in light of the state of the economy. I'm not prepared to have a conversation on revenues until we have a conversation about reforms. And if that means holding revenues hostage to reforms, that's what I'm going to do."

More will look to the chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, Steven Panagiotakos (Lowell-D). He said it would be tough to ask for the full 19¢ — "These are difficult times."

The economics are very different from the simple-minded I'll-save-the-taxpayer calls though. Consider the opening to Gov. Deval Patrick's announcement on this and related legislation, "Our transportation system--roads, bridges, rails--has been neglected for over 16 years. For years, both government and the public have deferred the difficult decisions, foisting debt and crumbling roads on to the backs of future generations. Because of this neglect, our system is at a physical and financial breaking point."

Legislators here have crafted long, well-paying and powerful careers through playing the game Patrick calls them on. Election after election, they reminded voters they promised, and delivered on, no new taxes. The visceral and primitive thought me keep money generally worked. Meanwhile the essential repairs and improvements climbed and climbed in cost. Years of small illusory savings were really high-interest loans.

We should not now listen yet again to the legislators who got us into the gigantic money mess. If some lose their next reelection bids, it should not be for 19¢. It should be for the billions of dollars they have wasted in playing the no-taxes game.

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