The shattered bits of glass had barely been wiped off an unfortunate motorist's car Tuesday before the usual suspects had grabbed and sensationalized the incident for their own political purposes.
"Committee for Safer Roads and Bridges Says Yesterday's I-495 Bridge Incident is Evidence of How Ballot Question's (sic) Puts Public at Further Risk," screamed the Wednesday headline that was sent out to media across the state.
What was all this about?
It's simple -- various interests groups are trying to scare the public into opposing a ballot question that would undo an automatic annual tax hike on the gasoline. It's a cheap stunt and only proves the point that Massachusetts voters should vote "Yes" on ballot Question 1 this fall.
Last year, state lawmakers passed a tax hike on gasoline. That's nothing unusual -- Massachusetts drivers, like drivers in every state, pay several cents per gallon in state taxes. The money is supposed to be spent on maintaining our roadways. What was unusual was the language they slipped in -- an additional tax increase is automatic each year, tied to inflation. There is no other tax on the books in this state that has this component in it.
But they didn't stop there. The tax doesn't decrease if we experience economic deflation. In other words, this tax that is allegedly tied to our economy only goes one way -- up.
Here's why it is wrong: We hold our our elected officials accountable for their decisions, and any one of them will tell you that one of the most difficult votes they take is to increase taxes. It forces them to closely examine how the tax will be spent, it forces them to hear from their constituents, it forces them to make a decision that they must stand behind. It makes life a little uncomfortable.
The automatic tax hike that was approved last year took all of that accountability and discomfort away. No longer do lawmakers have to explain why they approved a tax hike, no longer do they have to face voters on it. It just automatically ticks up and up.
This fall voters will find Question 1 on the ballot, which seeks to undo the Legislature's tax hike. And we are sure that in the meantime, we will be bombarded with more stories like the unfortunate motorist who was driving down Interstate 495 in Chelmsford on Tuesday and had a windshield cracked by a piece of steel that fell off a bridge. The motorist was frightened but not hurt. The bridge, built in 1962, has been on the state's list of "deficient" bridges for years.
Do we need to fix our bridges and roads? Absolutely, it is one of the basic services that our government must provide. Problems with our state bridges are nothing new, and Massachusetts has been playing catch-up for more than two decades, despite several tax hikes that have been passed over the years. Indeed, many times in the past we've been promised that this tax hike will be the one that gets us on the path to fixing bridges.
The real issue has nothing to do with bridge safety. It has to do with a cowardly move by our state lawmakers to pass a tax hike that holds no one accountable. If lawmakers want to raise taxes to fix bridges, they should do it the old-fashioned -- and accountable -- way.