By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 13, 2012….The House passed an MBTA budget bailout bill Wednesday after some controversy along the way that led most Republicans to vote against the bill.
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading) voted against the bill, along with several other Republican leaders. The bill passed 130 to 25.
The legislation (H 4161), which now heads to the Senate, helps the T resolve its budget crisis by sweeping the state’s motor vehicle inspection trust fund of $51 million in surplus fee revenues to close the deficit remaining in the MBTA’s $1.7 billion budget. T fare hikes averaging 23 percent and some service cuts are closing most of the T’s budget gap. The fare increases and service cuts take effect July 1.
Some lawmakers from communities further outside the Boston area balked at giving the transit system inspection fee money that is collected statewide.
As a compromise, regional transit authorities are also in line to receive $3.5 million, including $2 million from the trust fund and $1.5 million in surplus snow and ice removal funds. House leaders say a separate deal has been struck with the Senate for $3.5 million more to be set aside for RTA’s in next year’s budget.
During debate on the bill, Republican lawmakers attempted to tie the release of the $51 million that will be transferred from the state’s motor vehicle inspection fund to close the T budget gap with Chapter 90 funds promised in the spring that cities and towns are still waiting for to conduct road and bridge repairs.
Rep. Daniel Winslow (R-Norfolk) filed an amendment to delay transferring the $51 million to the T until the Legislature and governor give final approval to legislation giving cities and towns $200 million for road and bridge projects. The money is tied up in conference committee after the House and Senate passed differing versions of a transportation bond bill. The House in March passed a bill that included only the $200 million in funding for Chapter 90 local infrastructure projects, stripping out the remaining $1.3 billion in spending authorization proposed by the Patrick administration and passed in the Senate.
The conference committee – four Democrats and two Republicans – has been unable to strike a deal.
Winslow said the same reasons the state is helping the MBTA, including job growth, point to why the state needs to quickly get money to communities for road and bridge projects. Municipal officials have been unable to start spring and summer construction projects because the money is still tied up.
“Our towns depend on the Chapter 90 money,” Winslow said. “With every passing day the price of projects will increase as contractors have our towns over the barrel.”
Rep. William Straus, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, argued against the idea saying it was a dangerous precedent to tie transportation projects together.
Jones said the precedent was already set when the state was mandated as the result of a court case to fund certain MBTA projects, including the Green Line extension, as part of the Big Dig project.
“We aren’t establishing the precedent,” Jones said. “This is a perfect opportunity to send a message to the upper branch, and to the public that we hear them.”
The amendment failed 34 to 115. Two Democrats voted with the Republicans, Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) and Rep. Stephen DiNatale (D-Fitchburg).
Several lawmakers said it pained them to give money to the MBTA for a short-term fix to its ongoing budget problems.
Rep. George Peterson, one of the few Republicans who did vote in favor of the bill, said he did so with “trepidation and concern.” Peterson said he was among the group of legislators who, several years ago, forced the MBTA to change the way it operates by requiring a balanced budget as opposed to handing the Legislature a bill at the end of the year. Peterson said he was concerned about a long-term solution.
“We cannot continue to say alright we are going to pay the bill one more time,” Peterson said before the vote. “We need to look at all the strategies, whether it is privatizing The Ride or a different fare collection.”
“I will be supporting this because I understand how badly the T needs this influx of funds right now,” he added. “We need to come up with a long-term strategy. Because if we don’t, the next time we come here to throw some money at the problem, I won’t be that supportive.”
Another amendment that would have lowered the motor vehicle inspection fee from $29 to $25 also failed. Rep. Richard Bastien (R-Gardner), who sponsored the amendment, said there was no reason the motor vehicle inspection fund should have such a surplus and said the ballooning account indicated fees were too high. He said they should have been rolled back long ago according to state statute. He called the motor vehicle inspection trust fund a “slush fund” that was now being used to bail out the T.
Straus objected to calling it a “slush fund” and said the account was created to meet federal Clean Air Act standards with a portion of the money going to the Department of Environmental Protection. Using the money to pay for mass-transit aligned with the original goal because people who use public transportation provide clean air benefits to the environment, Straus argued.
The amendment was rejected with 33 voting in favor and 119 against it.
One successful change to the bill would extend the expiration date for multi-ride tickets for the T. Rep. Jay Barrows (R-Mansfield) said it was inconsistent to require retailers to have no expiration dates on their gift cards, yet the T could have tickets expire within 30 days. His amendment, adopted unanimously, pushed the expiration date to 90 days.