You pay more so city, town employees can get more
© by Barbara Anderson
The Salem News
Thursday, May 10, 2007
As I have written before this time of year: in spring, as Proposition 2½
override signs pop up with the dandelions, the sound of the cuckoo is
heard in the land, singing, "Higher taxes!" I think for many voters,
that sound is more annoying than it used to be.
When Prop 2½ was being drafted as an initiative petition and ballot
question by Citizens for Limited Taxation in 1979, I recall the
discussion about an override provision. It was accepted as a "safety
net" to address concerns that a community might have an emergency -- a
sudden unanticipated expense like a court judgment, or the police
station burning down.
At a time when our property taxes were arguably the highest in the
world, and people were very angry about this, it never occurred to us
that someday voters might choose to raise their own taxes to pay for
operating expenses -- like pay raises and benefits for some town unions
that exceed anything the voters themselves receive from their health
insurance and Social Security and/or pensions.
Of course the overrides aren't usually promoted for these "fixed costs,"
which are considered by local officials to be inevitably funded; voters are
told the extra money is needed "for the children" or to preserve
"community values" or avoid the loss of a program.
The town of Saugus has a budget crisis in 2007 because its town
government negotiated unsustainable benefits with its unions. So
taxpayers were told to raise their taxes or lose their library and
senior center. Since this seems a disconnect to me, I was glad to see
the override defeated -- especially since Saugus had the highest
percentage support for Prop 2½ when the ballot question passed in 1980.
Apparently its voters haven't changed their minds about keeping control
over their taxes.
It was good to see the Shrewsbury override go down for a different
reason. We have often seen students used by school administrations to
sell overrides. In this year's new twist, the Shrewsbury League of Women
Voters arranged for kids old enough to vote to take a limousine to the
polls in order "to start students off with a memorable voting experience
that will encourage them to be lifelong voters."
I can see them at my age, still standing on the curb, waiting for that
limousine to take them to vote again. The LWV, always a Prop 2½
opponent, clearly tried to help the town get some votes for its
override, giving new meaning to the phrase "limousine liberal."
Since that ploy didn't work, some override proponents in Shrewsbury have
come up with a new idea -- voluntary contributions. Good idea, but if
the money is used for "fixed costs" this will have to be a permanent,
Other override proponents have other ideas. Some argue that it's time to
change Prop 2½ to Prop 3 or 4, increasing the additional amount that can
be raised each year without an override. Another original Prop 2½
opponent, Ed Moscovitch of Cape Ann Economics, is advocating a state
property tax in place of the local property tax to pay for education.
The intent is to equalize the spending on students from wealthy and poor
Education vouchers, funded by broad-based state taxes, would accomplish
that goal without continuing reliance on the property tax, which
Governor Patrick has recently criticized. He who promised "property tax
relief" during his campaign says that his administration is working on a
plan to address that reliance. So many hints, so little detail.
Proposition 2½ has limited the property tax levy, as it was meant to do.
But it can't make the right spending choices; only town meetings and
city councils can do that.
Prop 2½ encouraged the state to share more of its own revenues with the
cities and towns, which is a good thing. State money from existing,
broad-based taxes is a better source of funding for education than the
property tax. But too often, the state money was used to increase the
personnel expenses which then became "fixed costs" that cannot be
Too many local leaders couldn't say "No" to their public employee
unions; so when the local aid ran out, they needed more property tax
revenue to sustain the spending. Fortunately the voters themselves are
able, because of the override provision, to say "No more."
After numerous newspaper articles about public employee pension abuses,
citizens are becoming aware of the coming crisis in pension liabilities.
Many have also been surprised to learn that many government employees
have been promised health insurance for life, and that they become
eligible for these benefits long before the rest of us are eligible for
Social Security and Medicare.
Governor Patrick has proposed the beginning of reform in the benefits
arena. We must not only wish him well in this endeavor, but help if we
If there is to be reform, Saugus and Shrewsbury voters did their part by
voting against overrides. The difficulties that some communities face
this year must inspire all politicians to take on the public employee
unions to get the necessary reforms done now. Then we can all have a
debate on the way education is funded.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens
for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and
Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and
Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the
Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.