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Amid Fiscal Crunch, Gas Tax Hike Possible

Fri April 11, 2008 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) With gas prices well over $3 a gallon and the country veering toward a possible recession, the idea of hiking the state gas tax continues to linger just out of sight on Beacon Hill.

And while no Statehouse leaders have embraced the idea publicly, few also seem ready to reject it entirely as they struggle to close a $1.3 billion funding shortfall.

Recently, Gov. Deval Patrick again refused to rule out the possibility of imposing a new tax at the pump as one way to help close the state’s spending gap.

“I have never opposed raising the gas tax. What I have said is that it is not my first choice,’’ Patrick said in response to reporters’ questions March 26. “I think I would be right in saying that it is not the first choice of most consumers in Massachusetts, especially in these times.’’

Senate President Therese Murray, rolling out a package of transportation reforms on March 27, also refused to reject talk of a higher gas tax or increased tolling, although she said nothing was in the works.

“Those things, if they happen, will come last. The first things we’re going to see is do we have savings in the system and how we manage the system we presently have,’’ Murray said. “We know there are savings.’’

The reforms outlined by Murray include replacing some police details at roadside construction cites with civilian flag men and requiring new Turnpike and MBTA retirees to pay health insurance contributions in line with other state workers.

But the refusal by Patrick, Murray and others to dismiss a gas tax hike is giving hope to activists on both sides of the issue.

Environmentalists and transportation advocates say the higher gas tax would help pull in desperately needed dollars while also convincing some drivers to ease up on the length and frequency of trips.

They say other steps like “congestion pricing’’ — charging drivers more for using heavily trafficked roads at peak hours — and “open road tolling’’ — allowing drivers to be tolled by the mile without the use of toll booths — should also be part of the discussion.

“The state will need to seriously explore and enact new revenue generating opportunities, like an increase in the gas tax or congestion pricing, to maintain and expand a safe and efficient network of public transportation,’’ said Philip Warburg, president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

But anti-tax activists say they are also buoyed by Murray’s reform package and the reluctance of any of the top leaders to embrace a gas tax increase.

They say the fact that the reforms could raise the ire of powerful unions shows lawmakers are feeling less intimidated as they scramble for ways to save money — and that they fear the wrath of drivers even more.

“I don’t think the public will allow any tax increases until these other things are addressed first,’’ said Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation. “It will be very, very difficult to do a gas tax increase with the prices where they are and people feeling the effects of a recession.’’

Talk of a gas tax increase was sparked last year by a special commission created by lawmakers to look at how much it will cost to maintain the state’s roads, bridges and rails for the next two decades. The commission released two bombshell findings.

The first estimated the cost at an extra $15 to $19 billion over the next two decades — not counting any new transportation projects.

The second made a series of recommendations about how to address the problem. It included some of the reforms unveiled in late March — including the use of civilian flag men and health care changes.

But the report also made more controversial recommendations, including an 11.5 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax and a new 5-cent per mile highway user fee using open road tolling.

The 11.5 cent increase in the gas tax reflects how much the tax would have increased at the rate of inflation since the last increase in 1990.

Under the commission’s proposal, future increases in the tax would automatically be tied to the rate of inflation — a change that could bring in an estimated $10.5 billion over the next 20 years.

Immediately after the release of the report last year, Patrick, Murray and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi frowned on the prospect of a gas tax hike — although none ruled it out then either.

But that was when Gov. Deval Patrick still held out hope for approval this year of his three-casino plan. With those potential gambling dollars gone, lawmakers are looking for other revenue-raising options.

Whether the gas tax is among them is still up in the air.

“That will be discussed way down the road,’’ Murray said this week. “First we have to see if we can put savings in and if it’s necessary.’’

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