We called him Zero Piro.
This was not a nasty personal attack; for all I knew, Rep.
Vinny Piro (D-Somerville) was a fine person with a successful personal life. The "zero" referred to his taxpayers' rating
with Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT): zero out of a possible 100 percent.
And yet he was referred to, in the media, as a conservative.
So was then-Speaker of the Massachusetts House, Thomas McGee. And Senate President William Bulger. But none of them
supported the tax cuts and tax limitation that were proposed by Governor
Edward J. King, whom I have always considered Mr. Conservative, Massachusetts.
Now House Speaker Thomas Finneran and his new Ways & Means
Chairman John Rogers are referred to as conservatives. While not zero, their average ratings with CLT over the past six
years is only 25 percent. They opposed the three-year income tax rollback and a reduction in the so-called
unearned income tax rate, but once voted to increase property taxes by the rate
of inflation instead of the present Prop 2½ limit.
While he was Ways & Means Chairman, Finneran also attempted
to increase property taxes by the amount of the community overlay fund, and Rogers voted with him. They failed only
because Governor Weld repeatedly vetoed the proposal.
I have always thought that conservatives wanted to conserve
my access to my own money, and keep the size of government under control. Finneran did not support Proposition 2½ in
the early '80s, and voted not to repeal the Dukakis surtax until it was on the ballot and the legislative leadership
However, he did vote for the tax hikes of 1989-90. Rogers
wasn't in the Legislature then, but he voted, with Finneran, for the taxpayer-funded convention center and eminent domain
takings for Fenway Park, two bigger-government initiatives.
They did support many of the other tax cuts over the past
decade that were supported by the Legislature in general, and opposed the graduated income tax. But overall, if it had been
up to Tom Finneran and John Rogers, I'd have less of my own money to spend and government would be bigger
than it is.
When the media describes a legislator as conservative, maybe
it's not thinking "fiscal," but referring only to the so-called "social issues"? I'm not sure what that phrase means, but for
the purpose of discussion I'm going to assume it includes choice issues, gay rights, welfare and gun control.
Organizations that call themselves conservative - and they should know - are pro-life and pro-gun rights, while
considering homosexuality a sin and welfare a last and temporary resort.
There haven't been recent key votes on abortion or gay
issues in the Massachusetts House, but both Finneran and Rogers are considered traditionalists on these issues. Rogers has
filed an anti-gay-marriage bill, and says he is "pro-life."
They also support welfare reform, which saves the taxpayers
money as well as encouraging personal responsibility. However, Finneran has a mixed record on gun control issues, while Rogers
consistently votes against the right to bear arms.
The death penalty, which they both oppose, is generally
considered a "law and order" conservative issue. However, some people oppose it because they dislike giving the power of life
and death to the government, a conservative concern.
Conservatives generally support school choice, and both
Finneran and Rogers have supported charter schools. However, while many conservatives want education vouchers, others fear
giving the government access to private and religious education.
William Safire's New Political Dictionary defines "conservative" literally, as a "defender of the status
quo ... who prefers that change come slowly, and in moderation." If we
are talking about change from the values of our founding fathers, a conservative would be for the Second Amendment,
limited taxes and government, and against abortion. But he would probably want quick and dramatic change from
the present high taxes, big government, gun control, and abortion rights.
The definition doesn't work anymore.
"Liberal" is even harder to define: classic liberals are in
fact, libertarian, while modern liberals are high-tax supporters of bigger government. Safire defines the former as
"one who resisted government encroachment on individual liberties" and the latter as "one who believes in more
government action to meet individual needs." One could probably get away with being both those things at once, if
government action weren't funded by individuals who are forced to contribute.
To add to the confusion, many conservatives believe in more
government encroachment on individual liberties, which means bigger government, so go figure.
It's hard to get along without a single word which defines
each of our political positions, but the time has come to admit that the words "conservative" and "liberal" don't tell us what
we once thought they did. If we want to know where some legislator stands, we have to ask him more than if he's liberal
or conservative - whatever that means.