It's my birthday so I've got another Harry Potter book from my grandchildren. Good thing, too, because without a regular magic update, I'd have a hard time believing the things I'm hearing about the income tax rollback.
Wave that wand! Cast that spell! Watch a few hundred million dollars magically multiply!
Even though the state will get roughly $23 billion in revenue this year, spending groups are swarming like bats around the State House, insisting that their special interest can be funded only if the Legislature keeps the income tax rate at 5.3 percent instead of its voter-mandated 5 percent next year.
And more magic! A rate that by law is 5 percent goes up to 5.3 percent, and it's not an increase, it's a freeze!
Across the commonwealth, some media outlets report the pain that could be avoided if only the state had another $250-$500 million (estimates of "freeze" savings). Poor people are losing their teeth. Soup kitchens are losing their soup. A Boston newspaper reports that a child is crying because her favorite teacher's assistant has been laid off. If we "freeze" the income tax rollback there will be dentures for everyone, soup in every pot, and each little girl will have her own special assistant. No more tears!
Affordable housing that wasn't built during the years of budget surplus will suddenly sprout all over the landscape. Yet open space will somehow be preserved. Roads and bridges that were neglected during boom times will now be repaved during bust. Hospitals that struggled when the state was celebrating will struggle no more.
The school departments that neglected maintenance so they could get school building assistance money from the state can start replacing 30-year-old schools. Grants will be given, boondoggles will be preserved, college presidents and legislators will get raises, patronage in the courts will thrive.
And if that's not enough benefit from raising the income tax rate by .3 percent, the Framingham selectmen wrote to other municipal leaders stating that the entire $500 million could be distributed to their communities if they write to the Legislature demanding higher taxes. The letter included a list with the amount each city and town will get in new local aid if that pesky old rollback just stops rolling.
In addition, my own state rep, Doug Petersen, suggests that we can use the extra money to "replenish the rainy day fund". Isn't the fund there to preserve essential programs in an economic downturn? Why would replenishing it be a priority at this time?
Let's toss the rollback money in the street outside the State House and watch all the special interest groups scramble for what they're told is their share if the rate stays at 5.3 percent. As humanservice providers battle the Framingham selectmen for each $10 bill, we could put it on television like "Survivor" and sell advertising to replenish the rainy day fund.
Of course, the secret magic plan is to repeal the phases of the rollback that we taxpayers are getting already! The Mass Municipal Association is asking that the rate return to 5.6 percent. Senate President Tom Birmingham is suggesting that it could return to its original 5.85 percent, where it was when voters chose to phase it down over three years.
So now we are talking roughly $1.4 billion more a year in spending, on top of the doubling of the state budget since the last fiscal crisis. Once they build that into their spending base, legislators will require that new total plus increases each year forever, in order to keep the teeth, soup and teacher's aide.
When the economy and state revenues pick up we will be told, again, that we can't have a tax cut because we have to put money in a rainy day fund so the state doesn't have to raise taxes in a recession.
And of course many essential programs will still not be funded, so that voters can always see how much the state needs more of our money.
It really isn't the money, you know; it's the insult. If the state budget can't grow another one billion this year and another one billion next year, is it a "fiscal crisis"? There is no attempt to manage programs better, just to manage public opinion about carefully orchestrated service cuts. With the fifth-highest taxes in the nation, we won't be able to afford public safety, and the terrorists will win!
I suspect that the public isn't going to be managed this time: that most selectmen won't get snookered into writing the naively hopeful "freeze the rollback and send us our share" letter, that voters will let their representatives know the magic tricks aren't working. When Acting Gov. Swift vetoes the tax hikes, I predict that legislators who vote to override her veto will turn into toads, and that will be the best magic of all.