Monday, December 12, 2011

End Commuter Discrimination: Senators Cardin & Mikulski Fight to Preserve Transit Tax Credit - Relief Ends in 2.5 Weeks!

Federal News Radio today reported that U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski are calling on Congress to protect and expand a tax credit for mass transit commuters. The benefit is set to expire at the end of this year:
A group of 22 senators has called on the Senate Finance Committee to take up extending a mass-transit commuter tax benefit, which expires at the end of the year.

The mass-transit benefit is set to be cut nearly in half — from $230 a month to $120 — starting next year, barring action by Congress.

Maryland Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, who both signed the letter, said the cut could disproportionately affect federal workers....

The commuter benefit was last boosted in December 2010, when Congress upped the benefit to its current level — the same amount afforded parking benefits.
In a joint press release last Friday, the two Maryland Senators explained why they were fighting for this critical, but not-so-glamorous benefit:
U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski today joined a bipartisan coalition of twenty additional Senators in urging the Senate Finance Committee to include an extension of the widely used mass-transit commuter tax credit in any relevant legislation taken up by the Senate before it expires at the end of the year. The tax credit has an immediate impact on the region’s federal workforce and middle-class commuters across the nation. At a savings of over $1,000 per year, it eases the burden of high travel costs on families, allowing them to invest it in the local economy.
“Congress should not keep chipping away at essential benefits that help Federal employees do the work of the American people. Eliminating the mass-transit credit would take a cut out of the paychecks of hardworking middle-class families trying to get by in an already tough economy,” said Senator Cardin. “Promoting the use of mass transit helps our workers but it also helps reduce traffic congestion on our region’s highways and improve air quality by taking thousands of cars off the road.”

“Extending the mass-transit commuter tax credit has an immediate impact, easing the burden on middle-class families and Maryland’s federal workforce,” Senator Mikulski said. “It also provides much needed relief for everyone who uses the region’s strained highway system. As we work to put people back to work, we should do all we can to help them get to their job.”

In 2009, Congress raised the tax-free benefit that workers could apply toward monthly commuting costs from $120 per month up to $230 per month, putting mass-transit benefits on the same level as parking benefits. Nationally, more than 2.5 million commuters utilize the transit credit, with more than 250,000 spending more than $125 per month. If this tax credit, which is set to expire December 31, is not renewed, the cost of commuting will rise by up to 22 percent for these commuters with high monthly costs.

Earlier this year, Senators Mikulski and Cardin cosponsored the Commuter Benefits Equity Act of 2011, legislation by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would make the mass-transit tax credit permanent, and on the same level as parking benefits.

In their letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the Senators wrote, “Commuter benefits are one of the core benefits offered by employers, after health, retirement and disability benefits. This important benefit eases the burden of commuting costs on families, relieves congestion, reduces the stress on our highway system and decreases our reliance on foreign oil.”
This action by our U.S. Senators is very interesting, because it is rare for us to see Congress trying to treat commuters equally. Instead, we are accustomed to seeing members demanding expensive road and highways projects that lead to taxpayers subsidizing driving in ways they never fully realize. The Senators today expressed not only a goal of pocketbook relief for working class commuters, but they also conveyed an understanding of the fundamental need to make transit systems a priority.

NOTE: This relates to recent discussions about Gov. Martin O'Malley's smart growth proposal, Plan Maryland. Republican lawmakers are trying to paint the plan as an "assault on rural Maryland" and private property rights, but what it is really about is protecting tax dollars. Plan Maryland raises an important question: why should taxpayers be on the hook to pay for infrastracture and roads to connect new development projects in places where it might not make sense to build in the first place?

If a landowner wants to build a shopping mall and multiplex 1.5 hours drive from the nearest major city, go on ahead. But why should taxpayers then be asked to subsidize the project through expensive roads, highways, and other infrastructure? That is the core question of Plan Maryland. More on that soon!

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