Cap and Trade or Carbon Tax? How About Both?

As Congress considers approaches to climate change legislation, with pragmatists seeming generally to support a cap and trade system, while purists support a carbon tax, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has now weighed in with a new approach: How about both?

Although Massachusetts dithered a bit at the end of the Romney administration, it rejoined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Emission under Governor Patrick in time to participate in the first auction under the RGGI cap and trade program. Last week, the Governor balanced the scales, announcing a proposal for a 19-cent increase in the gas tax. Now, to be fair to the Governor, the gas tax increase is not being touted as a carbon tax. Moreover, there is no doubt that the Commonwealth has a gaping hole in its infrastructure budget – to the tune of $15 billion to $19 billion over the next 20 years, according to the Findings of the Transportation Finance Commission. Indeed, the true need to improve the Commonwealth’s infrastructure has led development interests to support a gas tax increase for some time now.

Nonetheless, a tax is a tax, and an increase in the size of the gas tax will inevitably have some impact on vehicle miles traveled. Just as anti-smoking advocates view cigarette taxes, environmentalists will applaud this move either way. It will almost certainly decrease VMT, thus decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, because people will still drive, the revenue from the tax will facilitate important infrastructure spending, including various transit projects that environmentalists have long supported. In fact, even aside from the gas tax itself and the funding of mass transit, the Governor’s announcement included provisions to make the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure more green and to reduce transportation-related GHG emissions.

If the Governor can get the tax through the legislature – and use the revenue as he has indicated (as opposed to funding legislators’ pet projects) – and implement the reforms he has described – then maybe we’ll be able to talk about a real win-win situation.

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