BOSTON -- The Massachusetts House debated a transportation finance package on Monday that calls for $500 million in new taxes but faced the likelihood of a veto from Gov. Deval Patrick, who insisted the bill does not go far enough to repair and upgrade the state's aging transportation infrastructure.
While there was little doubt the bill proposed by House and Senate leaders would pass, uncertainty remained over whether it would pass by a margin sufficient to override a veto. Patrick, meanwhile, continued to tell lawmakers in private meetings that he was open to negotiation.
The measure being debated includes a 3 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax and a $1 per pack increase in the excise tax on cigarettes.
Democratic leaders called their approach a reasonable one that would close the MBTA's annual operating deficit and put off the need for any immediate fare hikes or service cuts. They also said the bill would put regional transit systems on sounder financial footing, gradually end the practice of borrowing money to pay the salaries of state transportation employees, and make available to cities and towns an extra $100 million for local road projects.
But the administration argues that the legislative plan would not generate enough revenue to adequately address the state's decaying and debt-ridden transportation system.
Patrick has called for $1.9 billion in new revenue that would pay for both transportation and education investments. The governor's plan includes a hike in the income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 6.25, accompanied by a cut in the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent.
Rep. Brian Dempsey, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said at the outset of Monday's debate that while he respected many of the governor's priorities, he disagreed with "how we get there and how quickly we get there."
Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat, said an income tax hike, accompanied by the elimination of several deductions and exemptions, would hurt middle-class families. He also noted that Wall Street bond rating agencies had expressed concern that Massachusetts could become overly reliant on income tax revenues.
Rep. William Strauss, the House transportation committee chair, criticized Patrick's veto threat, saying that if the financing bill was killed it would lead to immediate increases in public transit fares and turnpike tolls.
"I don't want to play some kind of roulette game, a game of chance with the people we represent," said Strauss, D-Mattapoisett.
Opposition to the bill as written was emerging from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Republicans, heavily outnumbered in the Legislature, proposed an alternative transportation plan that included no new taxes, while some liberal Democrats were pushing to include the broader tax increases Patrick is seeking. The House had more than 100 amendments to wade through as the debate began.
Outside the House chamber, state Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey said there still was room for compromise if lawmakers were willing. But he defended the governor's veto threat, saying the current bill would not allow the state to properly maintain or modernize its transportation system or invest in projects. Those projects range from the extension of commuter rail to New Bedford to the reconstruction of Interstate 91 in Springfield and the replacement of antiquated subway trains, to the repairing of Morrissey Boulevard in Boston so it won't flood nearly every time it rains.
"I don't believe these are luxuries," Davies said. "They are necessities."
Still, there appeared to be limited appetite in the Legislature for the larger tax hikes Patrick wants. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the governor's plan could slow the state's economic recovery and jeopardize the state's bond rating.
If the bill passes the House it could be taken up by the Senate as early as Thursday.