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Revenue Committee Votes in Favor of “Fair Share Tax”

The Joint Committee on Revenue voted 12-4 in favor of the “Fair Share Tax” amendment during an Executive Session yesterday. This was the next in a series of steps necessary before the initiative can appear on the 2018 ballot – the initiative now must receive 50 affirmative votes at a Constitutional Convention during the current legislative session, and 50 affirmative votes at a Constitutional Convention during the next legislative session. As I wrote in this op-ed, this proposal would create a more even effective tax rate across all income levels – the poorest Massachusetts residents are currently paying an effective tax rate that is on average 38% higher than that of top earners – as well as address the Commonwealth’s unsustainable income inequality gap by investing in transportation, roads and bridges, and public education.

“Fair Share Tax” Receives Hearing on Beacon Hill

Today, Massachusetts took a small step toward attaining a fairer tax system. The legislature’s Joint Committee on Revenue heard public testimony on an initiative petition that would establish an additional tax on incomes over $1 million. This hearing is a key step in a four-year process that would potentially put the question of a “fair share tax” before the Commonwealth’s voters in 2018.

Members of the Joint Committee on Revenue listen and take notes during public testimony on the Fair Share Tax amendment.

Members of the Joint Committee on Revenue listen and take notes during public testimony on the Fair Share Tax amendment.

Before I go into greater detail about this proposal and why I think it’s a good idea, it might be helpful to present some background information on the income tax in Massachusetts.

Currently, it is unconstitutional in the state of Massachusetts for the government to tax different income levels at different rates. This restriction originates from Article 44 of the Massachusetts Constitution, which was ratified by the state’s voters in 1915.

Article 44 is probably most well known as the reason Massachusetts has a flat income tax rate for people of all income levels.  When article 44 was ratified by the state’s voters, it was during the advent of stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments–a new class of property known as intangible property that had not been encountered previously. The tax system of the time allowed municipalities to set their own tax rates on intangible property (as they do with other types of property, such as real estate), which lead to varying tax rates throughout the state, typically with cities having the highest rates. Under this system, the wealthy would often shift domiciles from cities to towns in order to take advantage of lower tax rates, and in some cases, to try their luck at hiding intangible income from assessors that had fewer resources at hand to ensure all owed tax was being collected.

Article 44 sought to remedy this situation by establishing the power of the General Court (the formal name for the state’s legislature) to levy state-wide taxes on various classes of income, including intangible income, as long as tax rates were uniform for each class. So, although many see article 44 as a limit on the legislature’s power to establish a more nuanced income tax system in the present day, at the time it was a major expansion of the legislative branch’s power to levy taxes.

While the establishment of a state income tax that applies equally to residents regardless of city or town made sense in 1915–and continues to make sense today–the requirement that the income tax rate be flat for all income levels has proven to be inherently unequal. For a single mother making $45,000 per year in greater Boston, every dollar is important. She spends a great deal of her income on basic necessities for her family like shelter, transportation, food, and clothing (some of which are taxed, some not). However, as a person’s income increases, the proportion of their income that they must spend on basic needs decreases. They spend a smaller percentage of their total income on necessities that are subject to other forms of taxation, like sales and fuel taxes, and when you add up all the taxes an individual or family pays over the course of the year, it turns out that the richest 1% are being taxed at a lower rate than middle and working class families.

Right now, the poorest Massachusetts residents wind up paying more of their income in taxes than anyone else. Chart produced by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, CC BY 4.0.

Right now, the poorest Massachusetts residents wind up paying more of their income in taxes than anyone else. Chart produced by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, CC BY 4.0.

There have been many attempts to correct this phenomenon–the personal income exemption, the earned income tax credit, and exemptions for food and clothing from the state sales tax, to name a few. However, these solutions often require a reduction in state revenue because the legislature is constitutionally barred from asking the highest earners to make up the difference.

For this reason, I feel that it is time for Massachusetts to amend its constitution to allow for more equitable effective tax rates. Which brings us back to today’s hearing.

Before the Revenue Committee was H.3933, a constitutional amendment which would create an additional 4% tax on income over $1 million. This is a simple, straightforward proposal that will create parity between the effective tax rates paid by the richest and the poorest in Massachusetts, and in doing so, will raise an estimated $1.9 billion annually to finance public education, roads and bridges, and public transportation.

In order for this proposal to appear on the ballot in 2018, it must receive 50 affirmative votes at a Constitutional Convention during the current legislative session, and 50 affirmative votes at a Constitutional Convention during the next legislative session. The next convention is set for February 3rd, 2016.

 

Cambridge City Council Meetings Have a Brand New Look (Online, that is)

Cambridge City Council meetings are now available to view in an enhanced web format through the City’s brand new Open Meeting Portal. As meetings progress, viewers will now see relevant agenda items automatically appear alongside the new high definition video broadcast, making it easier to follow along at home. The Open Meeting Portal also provides a powerful new search function, allowing users to easily search through over a decade’s worth of minutes, agendas, and roll calls.

The Open Meeting Portal will also display information about upcoming meetings, so make sure to check it out and add it to your bookmarks. It can be accessed here: https://cambridgema.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx

Thoughts on Volpe and CRA Up-Zoning

Two zoning petitions are currently before the City Council that will dramatically increase the development potential in Kendall Square and East Cambridge. The first is best known as the Volpe Rezoning and the second is a petition by the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) to increase the square footage of the MXD district by approximately 1 million square feet. In my opinion neither of these proposals will be ready for ordination by the end of the term and I do not plan on voting in favor of either one in its current form.

With the Volpe rezoning we have an opportunity to use 14 acres in the heart of Kendall Square to redefine what Kendall will be for future generations. It is a complicated petition for sure, due to the economics of the site and the need for the future developer to construct a new facility for the Federal Government. It is the sort of hypothetical development scenario they base graduate courses on at MIT. The economics of the site—the affordable housing component, the allowed heights versus open space, the cost of a new building—is the primary sticking point in this process, and frankly I have not been presented with a compelling enough case on this point to consider voting in favor of the petition.

NASA officials examine a model of the Electronics Research Center, which became the Volpe Center when it was transferred from NASA to DOT in the early 1970s.

NASA officials examine a model of the Electronics Research Center, which became the Volpe Center when it was transferred from NASA to DOT in the early 1970s.

More work needs to be done, more questions need to be answered, and more feedback from residents of East Cambridge and The Port needs to be incorporated. The East Cambridge Planning Team has spent many hours examining the proposal and have some thoughtful alternatives that should be considered or hard evidence needs to be presented to explain why that concept cannot be done.

Just across the street we are presented with a second up-zoning of the CRA parcels which would allow 1 million square feet of additional development. Again, I haven’t heard a compelling argument on why we should be considering an additional 1 million square feet at this location with 3 million square feet being proposed across the street at Volpe.

Perhaps with more information, discussion, and community feedback we can find a proposal that works for Cambridge’s future. These petitions are not there yet, and I will not be supporting them in their current form.

HONK! Fest is Back This Weekend

Activist street bands will fill the streets of Somerville and Cambridge this weekend for the 2015 edition of HONK! Fest.  The festival’s hosts describe it as a street music revolution in which bands present a diverse fusion of folkloric and modern sounds in the spirit of Mardi Gras. The festival is for free and will run throughout the weekend. For more information on the bands and the festival, please visit the official HONK! fest homepage or their Facebook page.

Construction Underway on Grand Junction Path

After years of hard work and persistent advocacy, the first shovel has finally hit the ground on the Grand Junction Path in Cambridge.

GJP_Con1

Years ago, I successfully led a unified community effort to stop a state proposal that would have seen the path be used for commuter rail trains and ethanol transportation. Since then, along with advocates like Friends of the Grand Junction and Friends of the Community Path, I have worked with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, MIT, and the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority to develop plans that will turn the Grand Junction into a safe pedestrian and bicycle path that will act as an urban necklace connecting thousands of Cambridge residents to businesses, parks, and schools. As this brief 2013 video below shows, once completed, the Grand Junction Path would improve community livability by creating a streamlined connection between Cambridgeport, Area 4, Harrington/Wellington, and East Cambridge. There remains a lot of hard work to be done before this project is complete, but I’m optimistic that we’ll get there because of the dedicated commitment of all the stakeholders involved. Please click this link to an update I posted earlier this year for more info on the Grand Junction Path Project.

Cambridge Delegation Reports Back on El Salvador Trip

In April, a delegation of nine Cambridge residents traveled to El Salvador to learn about the realities in El Salvador and visit Cambridge’s sister city of 28 years. The delegation of CRLS students, teachers and community activists met with women’s groups, youth leaders and organizers in San Salvador to learn about the history and current situation before traveling to Las Flores for five days.

The delegates are excited to be sharing their experiences in the forms of images and words at a report back/Salsa evening May 15th from 5:30-9 at the Amigos school, 15 Upton Street (off Magazine in Cambridgeport). Welcoming for all ages and families, the Salsa evening will have food followed by a performance and salsa lesson from MetaMovements.

The delegates are Amigos music teacher Sharon Hamel, Cambridge organizer Stephanie Guirand, CRLS students – Emma Ramsdell, Maribel Rawson-Stone and Jesse Simmons, CRLS media staff Erica Modugno, and Sister City Project founders Nancy Ryan, Cathy Hoffman and Rachel Wyon.

Progress Continues on Grand Junction Path

Exciting times are ahead for the Grand Junction Multiuse Path.  Last month the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) announced that they would start construction this year on the first section of the path. When the shovel hits the ground, it will be a true milestone in the history of this project.

What makes the Grand Junction Multiuse Path such an important project is its ability to connect so many amenities in Cambridge and Somerville. By connecting existing parks and public facilities throughout the corridor, the path will act as an urban necklace that makes open space and other neighborhoods more accessible for residents of Cambridgeport, Area 4, Harrington/Wellington and East Cambridge.  It has the potential to serve as a critical link between paths along (and over) the Charles River on one end and as a connection to the Somerville Community Path and Minuteman Commuter Bikeway on the other. It has immense potential to improve the quality of life for our neighborhoods by providing safe pedestrian and cyclist access to a large part of Cambridge, including a number of schools and parks.

An overnight success this is not.  It’s the culmination of many years of hard work, patience, and focus. Advocates like Friends of the Grand Junction have greatly contributed to the viability and public awareness of this project. Friends of the Community Path, whose primary focus has been on the Somerville Community Path, have worked with MassDOT to guarantee that a future connection between the Somerville Community Path and the Grand Junction Multiuse Path would not be physically obstructed by the Green Line Extension. These groups, along with many residents and officials, have had the vision to look ahead to the path’s creation, and have found ways to leverage new development to make progress on the Grand Junction path.

Along the way we have dealt with proposed uses for the Grand Junction route for Commuter Rail Trains and Ethanol Transport that could have impacted future use as a multiuse path. Advocates, legislators, and the community have been able to suppress both proposals and preserve the viability of the Grand Junction Multiuse Path.

The start of construction on a portion of the path–which has been made possible through the help of MIT and the CRA—means that we must continue to work to find ways to make construction of the entire path possible.  At a recent council meeting I moved to take two steps that I believe will keep this momentum going.  The first is asking the CRA to continue its work with the City of Cambridge to help us understand the complexities of land uses along the path heading towards the Somerville boarder.  With their help we can start to make progress on portions of the path that have yet to be studied in depth.

More importantly I have asked the City of Cambridge to consider creating a Grand Junction Overlay District along the length of the path.  An overlay district can help to shape the vision of the path while attempting to alleviate some possible obstacles identified by many studies of the project. It can help to preserve setbacks while ensuring development won’t encroach on the path while allowing more flexibility to landowners who may be redeveloping parcels along the path.  This will help our long term visions and goals for the corridor and I hope get people more excited about what this can be. Imagine a future where instead of the rails being a back alley, they are embraced and it becomes the front door to future residents, students and retail that want to take advantage of a bustling, commuter-centric path connecting the eastern half of Cambridge.

There remains much work to be done, but at the moment I will be happy to see the first shovels break ground.

If you want to hear more about the Grand Junction please join us at the Transportation Committee Meeting at 4 pm on Wednesday, March 25 at City Hall.

Some Thoughts on the Pearl Street Reconstruction Project

I have been contacted by many residents recently who are opposed to the proposal to eliminate parking for a dedicated bike lane on Pearl Street as part of an upcoming reconstruction project. I am also aware that there are a number of residents who support doing so. I submitted an order to the Cambridge City Council on Monday asking that the so-called “Complete Streets” proposal (the plan that eliminates parking) for Pearl Street be abandoned. An article about my order appeared on the blog BostInno, and I sent a letter to the author with some comments about the article and my position on this issue. I am publishing the letter here in hopes that it will provide some insight into why I submitted this Council order and help clarify my position on this issue. I tabled the order until the next regular Council meeting (January 26) to allow for more opportunity for public comment.  –Tim

Dear Nick,

I am writing to offer some comments on your January 6th article regarding the Pearl Street redesign and the order I submitted to the Cambridge City Council asking the manager to abandon the “Complete Streets” proposal.

I appreciate the past coverage that you and BostInno have given to the Pearl Street redesign issue and I want to say first and foremost that I agree that the status quo on Pearl Street is not acceptable. Improvements are needed to enhance safety and usability for all modes of transportation. I also firmly believe that residents must have a voice in deciding how the City approaches changes to the street they live on. After seeing the “Complete Streets” proposal and hearing from Pearl Street residents, I came to the conclusion that the proposal not only failed to reflect the needs of abutters and residents, but also did not offer enough safety improvements to justify the significant impact it would have on parking.

I think that it is worth pointing out for your readers that of the 54 crashes that you cited in your article, a significant number of them appear to have actually occurred on Massachusetts Avenue at the Pearl St. intersection, including four of the five collisions involving bicycles. This data makes a better case for focusing improvements on visibility at this intersection than it does for bike lanes on Pearl Street itself. To put the one accident that occurred on Pearl St. into context, during the same four year period there were 13 accidents involving bicycles on Prospect St. and 47 accidents involving bicycles on the section of Massachusetts Avenue between Magazine St. and Albany St. While it is true that both of these streets have significantly higher traffic volumes, if we are going to use collision numbers alone as justification for certain street improvements (as you do in your article), we should conclude that making improvements to visibility at the Mass Ave intersection would have a much greater impact on safety than bike lanes. With that said, I think that obtaining an accurate count of bicycle traffic on Pearl Street would be a good next step for the City and would help to further contextualize accident data.

I would also like to draw attention to your assertion that the “base plan” presents a safety risk because it keeps lane width at 11 feet. I was puzzled that you would bring up this detail but fail to point out that the “Complete Streets” proposal also keeps Pearl Street at 11 feet in width, albeit with a 7’ 6” bike lane during the day time. While this may give cyclists more breathing room for part of the day, the bike lane does not help reduce the most deadly factor in bicycle and pedestrian collisions with motor vehicles—speed. In fact, I would argue that the addition of a bike lane could have the effect of increasing speeds as drivers perceive the road to be wider between intersections, and while both the “base plan” and the “complete streets” plan include traffic calming measures like raised intersections and curb extensions, those may be made less effective under the “complete streets” plan due to the wider lane that some drivers will perceive to be available to them when no bikes are present.

It is my hope that you and your readers do not get the impression from my council order that I am somehow anti-bike or opposed to bike lanes. On the contrary, I have worked very hard to increase bike safety in Cambridge and in the areas of Somerville within my legislative district. I have worked with the Massachusetts Highway Department on coming changes to the McCarthy Overpass area in Somerville, which includes lots of new bike and pedestrian safety improvements (including some that come with the elimination of on-street parking spaces). I am also a member of the Grounding McGrath working group, which is working toward a re-design of McGrath Highway that will result in the construction of world-class bike infrastructure in an area of Somerville that currently has very little. Additionally, I have been advocating for and promoting the Grand Junction Rail Trail project for years, which, when completed, will achieve many of the same goals of the Pearl Street redesign, like safer routes to the Morse School and better bike access to Cambridgeport. I have secured funding for portions of rail trail, initiated feasibility studies with MIT, and have been successful in blocking proposed uses of the Grand Junction rail line that would conflict with future use of the right-of-way as a multi-use path.

My opposition to the Pearl St. “Complete Streets” plan is rooted in my belief that any roadway plan should balance public needs and safety. I think this plan fails in that regard and we should take another look at what our options are. As always, I am available to answer any questions you might have about my position on this matter.

Sincerely,

Tim Toomey

Part-time Jobs Still Available at Somerville Youth Shoveling Program

The Somerville Youth Shoveling program is a paid program for youth to shovel out seniors after a snow storm in Somerville. Interested youth need to sign up with the Office of Commissions, be available when there’s a snow storm to shovel a senior’s home, and will receive a payment for each house they shovel out. There are about 55 homes owned by seniors on the program’s list. Teens can sign up for email, text or phone calls to check availability and get house assignments. Participants 18 years and older will need to complete a CORI form.

For any questions, please call 617-625-6600 x2406 or email the program at commissions@somervillema.gov