Charlie Baker’s Team Is Open to a Tax for Drivers ‘Down the Road’

Internal emails showed some willingness to seek new revenue.

charlie baker

Photo via Governor’s Office

Gov. Charlie Baker ran for office, and won, on a platform that included a pledge not to add any new taxes.

But according to emails obtained by the Springfield Republican, his office is not closing the door on the idea of a tax on car-drivers “down the road.”

“VMT (vehicle miles traveled) may be a tool that is needed down the road so we do not wish to slam the program itself too directly,” Michael Berry, of the Department of Transportation, wrote in an email to staff, as the team was preparing its messaging before Baker announced he would veto a VMT tax pilot program in August.

As its name suggests, a VMT tax would be levied based on how far people drive, which would replace (or, possibly, be in addition to) the tax on gas. While a potential revenue generator, it’s also designed to incentivize people to take public transportation. The state, had he not vetoed that portion of the transportation bill sent to his desk, would have sought federal funding to test the idea.

“I would never support a vehicle miles traveled tax unless I was absolutely sure it was not going to create an additional burden on drivers in Massachusetts,” Baker said at the time, “especially on drivers in parts of the commonwealth where there’s not a lot of available public transportation.”

But at one point, the statement Baker gave to accompany the veto included this, according to the Republican: “I have asked MassDOT to further investigate this pilot opportunity, its success in other states and to address the concerns raised above. … Grant opportunities in future years will be considered based on those findings.” Those lines, forwarded to staff by Baker’s deputy legal counsel, were subsequently cut.

The apparent behind-the-scenes openness to new taxes among high-ranking members of his administration comes amid fiscal and managerial overhaul at the struggling MBTA—which has renewed calls from Mayor Marty Walsh and some transit activists to find new revenue—and also a budget shortfall that led the governor this month to make mid-year spending cuts, including slashing $1.9 million in funds for fighting the state’s opioid crisis.

This isn’t the first sign of flexibility on the no-new-taxes pledge. His administration this year pushed to raise fares on the T as high as was allowed by law. Baker has also been supportive of increasing the tax on marijuana beyond what was called for in Question 4, joining the chorus of lawmakers and regulators who say the 3.75 percent tax is too low to cover the cost of overseeing the new industry.