BOSTON (CBS/AP) — The state Senate, meeting in a rare Saturday session, approved a transportation financing overhaul bill that would pump more dollars into the state’s aging and debt-ridden transportation system.
Senators voted 30-5 to pass the bill, which calls for about $500 million in new taxes, after considering dozens of amendments during nearly 10 hours of debate. The bill likely will now go to a conference committee to resolve differences with a House version approved earlier in the week.
The House measure was approved Monday in the face of a veto threat from Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who criticized it as insufficient to deal with the state’s long-term transportation needs.
But Patrick has called the Senate version a step in the right direction because it dedicates more revenue to transportation projects. In a statement issued after the vote, he called the Senate proposal “a significant step forward” but expressed some concerns.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer urged colleagues at the outset of the debate to ignore the sometimes harsh rhetoric surrounding the bill.
“There has been a lot of emotion and a serious case of hardball politics over the last couple of weeks in this regard,” said Brewer, D-Barre.
Senators considered more than 100 proposed amendments to the bill. Among those that failed was a move by the tiny Republican caucus to strip out the $500 million in proposed new taxes and increase funds available for transportation through administrative reforms and other revenue sources, including future casino licenses.
The state should not “tax first, ask questions later,” Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr said.
But Brewer said eliminating taxes would be tantamount to putting the entire transportation plan “into the shredder.”
Senate President Therese Murray asked court officers to clear the Senate gallery of spectators after the debate was briefly disrupted by about two dozen protesters opposed to new taxes. Many in the group went to the Statehouse after attending a Boston Common tea party rally featuring anti-tax activist Grover Nordquist.
“I don’t understand why there isn’t tremendous outrage” over the new taxes, said Ed Purtz, of Salem, who was among those evicted from the gallery.
Senators approved an amendment that would prod the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority into selling naming rights for subway and commuter rail stations, a move that backers said could generate another $20 million in revenue for the cash-strapped agency.
Opponents objected to the notion of attaching corporate names to iconic downtown subway stations such as Park Street or Copley.
“Naming rights is a place where I draw the line,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston. “I don’t honestly know what is the price tag we can appropriately put on our history.”
Backers, however, said they believed the T could sell naming rights creatively while respecting tradition and pointed to the many newer stations that have no historical significance.
Lawmakers have shunned a much larger, $1.9 billion tax plan proposed by Patrick that included an increase in the state income tax to generate new revenue for transportation and education.
On Saturday, Brewer said the five-year Senate plan would reach an estimated $805 million by 2018 and create a “reliable, convenient and affordable transportation system.” The bill would generate additional revenue by dedicating an existing 2.5 cents per gallon gasoline surtax to transportation and requiring utilities with equipment on state highways to negotiate right-of-way agreements with the state. Neither measure was in the House-passed version.
But critics of the Senate plan say it relies far too heavily on future revenue generated directly by the MBTA or the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, dooming residents to ever-increasing transit fares, turnpike tolls and Registry of Motor Vehicles fees.
“What the Senate has passed is an appropriate compromise that seeks to place the commonwealth’s transportation systems on sound financial footing without jeopardizing our economic recovery and endangering the state’s bond rating,” Sen. Brian Joyce, D-Milton, said in a prepared statement. “Though there are some new revenues sought from the beneficiaries of the transportation improvements, there is an appropriate number of continuing and future reforms required of the MBTA and MassDOT to ensure that we do not run into these funding shortfalls year after year.”
Tarr said reforms such as requiring all reports produced by the MassDOT Special Audit Unit to be posted online are a key factor in the Senate’s transportation bill. “Amid a frenzy of increasing taxes and tolls, we have been able to secure a series of meaningful reforms that will hopefully mitigate the growing financial burden on the citizens of the Commonwealth,” Tarr said in a prepared statement.
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