Nobody wins, except special interests, on gas tax ballot question

By William Keve

(Robin Rombach/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)
(Robin Rombach/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)

All across Massachusetts, voters will take to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 4 to decide on the issue of repealing the automatic increase of the Bay State’s gas tax to agree with inflation. Arguments can be made for both sides, but this vote is indicative of how sly political engineering from massive Political Action Committees (PAC) campaigns can dilute the voting process even for something as democratic as a ballot question.

Those who favor repeal have challenged the economic argument made by state legislature, which probably doesn’t understand the issue. The basic argument made by the conservative grass-roots group, Tank the Gas Tax, is that tax revenue will increase with inflation even without an increase in the tax rate. Inflation leads to more consumption, in this case of gas, which should lead to more revenue, even if rates stay as they are.

Opponents of the repeal, in other words, supporters of raising the tax, are primarily those who benefit from the tax. The No on One Committee is a political action campaign composed of special interest groups who benefit directly from the tax. Specifically, the donors who have already spent over $900,000 in advertising against the issue consist of state contractors such as the Massachusetts Aggregate & Asphalt Paving Association and Suffolk Construction Inc. as the top contributors. These groups, and the others in the PAC, receive state construction contracts that are paid for by the gas tax.

Rest assured, some arguments being made from the opposing side are grounded in reality and not the pockets of interest groups. The official campaign website does a good job of justifying the increase: “Massachusetts residents should vote NO on Question 1 because this ballot measure would eliminate a key part of the funding that has been set aside by the state Constitution to pay for transportation projects across the state. It would jeopardize $1 billion in transportation improvements over the next decade – putting our public safety at further risk.”

The dreadful state of public infrastructure in Massachusetts and around the nation is a cause that anyone can get behind, but let’s take a look at some of those arguments.
The campaign suggests that roads will crumble to a useless state without this funding. What it really says is that the legislature used the passage of the gas tax increase to pay contractors more money to do more construction around the state. The legislature is suggesting that because it passed a tax increase that is so unpopular that it is currently under attack by referendum, it is too late to do anything about that mistake on account of the legislature investing the money already.

But that too is a hollow argument, because the money hasn’t already been spent, and while the statement tries to hide this fact, it fails to do so completely. “It would jeopardize the $1 billion in transportation improvements over the next decade,” the statement reads. So the money has not yet been spent, it has simply been set aside to be spent over the next decade. If that’s the case, then not only is it totally possible to repeal this law and relieve the middle class of a tax burden without harming the current state of Massachusetts’ roads, Gov. Deval Patrick and the state legislature are trying to pull the wool over the public on those facts.

I’m not calling for Massachusetts Daily Collegian readers to stand up and repeal the state’s gas tax increases. As a Vermont resident, I won’t be voting on this issue and I don’t care if this motion passes or fails. Judging by the recent Student Government Association election turnouts, I have no confidence that the University of Massachusetts student body will make a difference, and more importantly, I don’t care about the result of this ballot question.

I’m more concerned about the disgusting state of politics not just in Massachusetts, but in the entire United States.

Let’s peek behind the blinders and take this vote at face value. What we have is a corrupt administration trying to fight a popular movement against taxation with big money and big misinformation. The fact that roads need work is not a justification for publishing misleading economic arguments that the public by and large cannot comprehend, and then using those arguments to raise taxes now and give contractors a raise later.

The previously mentioned No on One Committee has outraised its opponents by a factor of nearly 20-1. The Tank the Gas Tax effort, whether you find it virtuous or misinformed, is a grass-roots small donor’s campaign without the backing of big business. And that campaign, the last flickering candle in a democracy on life support, is being decimated by special interests and their allies in the state government, all of whom stand to gain politically and financially from increasing tax rates.

State contractors are donating to help the state campaign in a not-so-subtle deal that will help them turn guaranteed profits for a decade on the backs of taxpayers. This issue would have massive public support, if the opposing campaign had enough money to educate the voting base. Instead it’s falling by the wayside as the least interesting option on the ballot because of a media and advertising whitewashing that was paid for by those who care about their paychecks and not the issues that middle class folks deal with every day.

Ballot questions are the most democratic process possible. Voters who are affected by the issue, and thus those who should understand it, must weigh the higher tax rate against infrastructure benefits and make an informed decision. That’s an impossible task when corporations can buy the electoral process, from advertising and campaigns to the legislature and even the governor himself.

William Keve is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]