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Joan Vennochi

Patrick and the gas tax: Will he or won't he?

By Joan Vennochi
February 12, 2009
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GOVERNOR Deval Patrick was against raising the state's gasoline tax before he was for it.

Now, he's for it. Probably. But, like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, don't push him on the details.

Patrick's latest riff on the subject came after the Associated Press reported the contents of a draft proposal calling for a 27-cent-per-gallon increase. That turned out to be one of several tax increase options under consideration, ranging from 5 cents to 29 cents.

Patrick called a press conference to announce that the information was leaked and made public "before we intended it to be." He still hasn't "landed in any particular place," but he does view such a hike as a "bridge to tomorrow."

The governor backed up over that bridge before inching forward, according to a timeline compiled by the State House News Service.

During a Columbus Day parade in October 2006, Patrick, then a gubernatorial candidate, was asked whether he would rule out a gas tax and toll increases if he won election. "Yes, I do," he said.

Then, as governor-elect, he told an interviewer in December 2006 that he wanted to review a transportation committee report calling for an increase of 9 cents "before I express a point of view."

In January 2007, the new governor said, "It's not on my radar screen right now."

And so the equivocating continued.

At one point, he suggested casino revenues as an alternative. Then, he said he never opposed a gas tax hike, he just wanted taxpayers to know "it is not my first choice." In a radio appearance on WTKK in April 2008, he argued against the notion that a higher state gas tax is inevitable and called it a "crummy time" for such a step.

But last November, he told reporters, "I'm not hostile to a gas tax."

Last month, he suggested via a Boston.com chat that he might be willing to raise the gas tax, under certain conditions, as an alternative to boosting tolls. When reporters followed up, he insisted his position was unchanged. "I'm in the same place I have always been about the gas tax. I'm not hostile to it."

The state transportation system has come close to bankruptcy because of lingering debt related to the Big Dig. In December, then House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi got behind a gas tax hike as the way to solve the crisis.

His successor, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, is less definitive - as Patrick has been. The Patrick administration has launched various trial-balloon solutions, from selling Massachusetts Turnpike plazas to raising existing tolls and adding new ones at state borders. Now, Patrick must pick his path to solvency.

As a candidate, Patrick didn't want to wear the tax-and-spend label of a traditional Democrat. As governor, he doesn't want to be another Michael Dukakis, rejecting taxes on the campaign trail, only to raise them once in office after facing fiscal crisis. Dukakis lost a Democratic reelection primary after breaking his "lead-pipe guarantee" that he wouldn't raise taxes. Dukakis staged a comeback that triumphed in flush fiscal times, but bottomed out with the crash of the Massachusetts Miracle.

Republican John Volpe campaigned for governor in 1964 on the sales tax and defeated Lieutenant Governor Frank Bellotti, a Democrat, who opposed it. Volpe sent his sales tax bill to the Legislature seven times before it passed, with key backing from the business community. He was reelected in 1966.

But, Massachusetts taxpayers are angrier than they were back in the 1960s. Over the decades, high-profile political scandals undercut their trust in government. For the past year, Beacon Hill has been operating under the cloud of assorted ethics investigations and outrageous cases of pension abuse. And the crisis in confidence comes at a time of deepening economic crisis. Patrick has proposed new taxes on alcohol and soft drinks, combined with deep cuts in local aid, education, and healthcare. Even so, his budget relies on Congress and President Obama to rescue Massachusetts with $1.2 billion in federal aid from an economic stimulus package.

When it comes to a gas tax hike, the time for hedging is over. It is time to lead.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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