MPG's Steve Koczela testifies on regional ballot initiatives for transportation

On June 18, 2019, The MassINC Polling Group’s President Steve Koczela testified before the Massachusetts State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Revenue about polling and focus groups MPG has conducted on regional ballot initiatives for transportation.

Thank you to the chairs and members. I am here to discuss public opinion on S1694/H2653 on regional ballot initiatives for transportation. My name is Steve Koczela. I am the president of the MassINC Polling Group, a nonpartisan polling firm located here on Beacon Hill. We have been researching regional ballot initiatives since 2012.

 We have done a number of statewide polls over this period, where we have asked for support or opposition. And we have done a series of focus groups around the state to understand the nuances of voter opinions about this topic.

 Beginning with the overall situation, large swaths of the public sees the current transportation situation as problematic. Particularly in the greater Boston region, commuters describe a series of increasingly heroic workarounds they have developed to try to cope with the problems they are facing. In a recent statewide poll, 30% of full time workers who commute saying they considered finding a new job, and 23% say they have contemplated leaving the region entirely in response to traffic and transit delays. Both numbers rise even further among those with longer commutes.

 In terms of funding, 80% of voters say they support additional funding for the transportation system, which has been another consistent feature of our polling for several years. The challenge, of course, is where the new funding comes from. Regional ballot questions has consistently been one of the most popular ideas for new revenue in our polling. With different framing and emphasizing different elements of the proposal, support has ranged from 55% to 81% in polling between 2012 and early this year. The margin between support and opposition has been at least 20 points toward support in each case.

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To make one thing clear, we have only been asking about giving cities and regions the power to conduct regional ballot questions, which is what this legislation would do. We can’t predict whether a city or region would prevail with a ballot question if given the authority to do one. And regional ballots would only address certain regional needs, one piece of the broader transportation revenue puzzle.  

To better understand why people support this idea, we conducted focus groups around the state earlier this year. There, people liked the idea of local control – getting to choose the projects they felt needed to get done – and local accountability to see that the money would only be spent on those project. Some also emphasized the idea of freedom, the ability to choose projects and funding mechanisms locally.

 In the groups farthest from Boston – in Springfield in New Bedford – there was a real sense of being left behind by decision makers in Boston. Even so, most folks in those groups suggested they would consider raising their own taxes if it meant taking control of their own futures.

 We also found participants raised a series of questions about how the details of the policy would work. Examples included how regions would be determined, which projects would get chosen, who would decide on projects, what taxes would go up, and when they would sunset. The groups also included questions about equity, and how to balance the interests of towns and regions of different economic means. Concerns about fraud and waste were pervasive, as is often in the case when we dig in on opinion on transportation here in Massachusetts.

 Any city or region that wants to do a regional ballot question will have to answer these questions from voters. Our research has found that giving voters specific details about how their money will be spent, and assurances that it will actually be spent in that way, can help to overcome skepticism about new taxes for transportation. One of the advantages of regional ballots is that they force policymakers to put those details and those assurances front and center.

 So while we can’t say how any single ballot question will go, we can say that, given the polling on transportation generally and the regional ballot concept specifically, the public is very open to giving cities and regions the authority to put transportation projects and taxes on the ballot.

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