The Boston Globe – Talking Points
By Jon Chesto, Talking Points, The Boston Globe, October 30, 2019
The tough quest for consensus: House Speaker Bob DeLeo made a bold request to the state’s business community in March: Come up with some transportation policies that everyone can unite behind.
Good luck with that one, Mr. Speaker.
Nearly 30 business groups from across the state have huddled for months, essentially to heed that call, with the results becoming public today, a few weeks ahead of a big transportation debate at the State House. On its face, there’s a semblance of unity. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce reported near-unanimous support for some kind of increase in government-controlled revenue, provided the new revenue is paired with structural reforms, to address the state’s numerous road and public transit woes.
But reaching consensus on the particulars proved to be tougher. Speaking with one voice is easier said than done. Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney, who shepherded these talks, initially strove for unanimity on a package of solutions that these disparate groups from across the state could endorse. In the end, Rooney and his colleagues opted instead to release an “a la carte” menu of options, each with varying levels of support.
A strong majority of participants polled by the chamber backed an increase in fees on Uber and Lyft rides, and the creation of a tolling task force to study time-of-day pricing and new locations for electronic gantries. But a proposed gas tax increase proved more divisive, with a smaller majority backing some kind of increase. The Greater Boston Chamber wants to add 15 cents a gallon to the tax rate, for example, and others supported something in that range. Others want to leave it untouched.
In the end, Associated Industries of Massachusetts opted not to respond to the chamber survey. Instead, AIM chose to back the Baker administration by supporting its $18 billion bond bill, which includes a number of systemic reforms to the state’s transportation bureaucracy, and a multistate charge on fuel aimed at curbing vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions, nicknamed “TCI.” AIM, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state, argues that no new revenue sources are needed right now to improve transportation. (The TCI money will come, but not for a few years.) The Mass. High Technology Council took a similar stance. Ditto the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.
Eight of the 28 participating groups didn’t end up responding to the poll. And the National Federation of Independent Business chose not to even participate from the start. State director Chris Carlozzi says his group was worried the end result of all these meetings would be new fees or taxes. NFIB hates that idea. Some of its roughly 5,500 small-business members here struggle to get by, he says, amid the relatively high cost of doing business in Massachusetts.
Part of the issue is geography. NFIB and AIM members are spread throughout the state, many far from the nearest T stop, and are less alarmed by Red Line derailments and Orange Line shutdowns than the Boston-focused groups.
Rooney recognized this could be a potential issue when he started these talks last winter. It’s why he included groups from all corners, from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. He knows he needs statewide support for an ambitious agenda to succeed at the State House. Some of these far-flung groups signed on, but not everyone.
The coalition’s members met with DeLeo and with Senate President Karen Spilka in August to brief them on the progress. Soon after those two meetings, Rooney says, it became clear that the typical business-group statement, in which everyone involved endorses it, would not be in the offing.
Even a smaller, separate group orchestrated by the Kendall Square Association and the left-leaning Alliance for Business Leadership couldn’t reach an agreement on everything. The Kendall Square crew issued a statement calling for an 18-cent increase to the gas tax, time-of-day toll prices, and new fees on ride-share trips. Missing in action: th`e Alliance. That board decided it couldn’t sign on because it would only endorse a plan that also included the millionaires’ tax. This surcharge on high-earners will likely go to voters in 2022 as a constitutional amendment, although it has been doggedly opposed by many business groups.
So much for unity.
But Representative Bill Straus, the House transportation committee chairman, says he actually prefers to receive a diversity of thought as House leaders hammer out a transportation bill in time for a floor debate expected in the third week of November.
Sometimes, Straus says, when coalitions try to unite behind grand statements, minority views get silenced. That could mean lawmakers end up with less input, not more. One thing’s for sure: They won’t be lacking for ideas and opinions from the business community this time around.