House Speaker Ron Mariano (right), flanked by House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, addresses reporters at an April 12, 2023 briefing on the House's budget proposal. Photo by Chris Lisinski | State House News Service

Top House Democrats think newly available money from a tax on the state’s highest earners should be used to make school meals free for all students, invest in clean energy updates to aging schools and fix crumbling infrastructure on the MBTA.

A quarter of the projected $1 billion that the state expects to bring in from the voter-approved surtax on Massachusetts residents who make over $1 million in a year would go toward MBTA capital investments in the House Ways and Means Committee budget plan that moved forward on a 31-0 vote Wednesday.

House leadership’s budget bill would dedicate $70 million more to MBTA infrastructure than Gov. Maura Healey proposed in March.

Like Healey’s budget, the committee recommends creating a separate fund for surtax revenue called the Education and Transportation Fund. Money in this fund would be required to be spent on education and transportation initiatives, the goal of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November.

House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz told reporters that 100 percent of the surtax funds in the committee’s plan would supplement existing budget allocations, rather than replacing some current spending to free up other spending space in the budget.

Michlewitz and other House leaders proposed splitting the $1 billion 50/50 into education and transportation investments. In the case of the latter, House Ways and Means directs more money to the MBTA, and less toward Department of Transportation highways and municipal assistance.

The committee dedicates half of state surtax transportation spending to MBTA capital investments, after a fraught year of infrastructure issues on the T. Their $250 million is 38 percent higher than Healey’s recommended appropriation of $181 million.

The panel also earmarks $65 million for a “safety reserve” and to boost the MBTA’s workforce, as safety and service issues at the T have been blamed on workforce shortages.

Both the governor and House Ways and Means included $5 million to explore the feasibility of implementing a means-tested fare program at the T.

Transit advocates have been pushing for years for the MBTA to roll out a widely available low-income fare option, and the idea has picked up momentum on several occasions but never gotten to the point of implementation.

The Legislature sought to mandate implementation of MBTA low-income fares in 2020, but Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed the measure in the dying hours of the two-year term, and the branches could not get on the same page last session.

In February 2022, MBTA staff projected that a system-wide means-tested fare program with eligibility set at 200 percent of the federal poverty level would cost $52 million to $85 million per year at existing service levels, or $72 million to $112 million when accounting for the likely increase in demand the option would generate.

House leadership recommended $100 million for highway bridge preservation, as Healey did, but didn’t include the governor’s $50 million for federal matching funds for highway improvements and $14 million for roadside maintenance and beautification. They also did not include the governor’s recommended $100 million for “one-time expenses for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to support municipalities in the design and development of local transportation projects through new or existing technical assistance programs.”

The lawmakers suggest $70 million toward regional transit funding and rail electrification grants, while Healey put forward $25 million and another $12.5 million for rail projects in Palmer and Pittsfield.

House, Healey Differ on Surtax Transpo Spending

by State House News Service time to read: 2 min