-- Part 1 of 2 parts --
Though aware that I'm composing this on April Fool's
Day, I am nevertheless going to leap onto this election year's popular
"hope" bandwagon and offer some springtime encouragement to
Please keep in mind that, while my optimism works with life in general,
it is usually misplaced when dealing with government. Yet I've seen good
results from the "fiscal crisis response" phenomenon in the past. When
the commonwealth is in financial distress, our elected officials have
focused, and begun doing what needs to be done.
In 1980, the passage by voters of Proposition 2½ precipitated a crisis,
as all communities immediately lost auto excise revenue, and many of
them had to cut property taxes for the next fiscal year. The state was
urged to cut its budget and give more local aid; after a few months of
political chaos, it did.
The fiscal crisis that followed the 1988 Dukakis presidential campaign
led to various changes, from the dismissal of Statehouse doorkeepers
(there were more keepers than doors) to major welfare reform. Of course,
we also had the biggest tax increases in state history; but in 1990
voters threw out some pro-tax legislators and started electing "no new
taxes" Republican governors.
Right now we face a $1.3 billion budget deficit, and huge unfunded
liabilities for infrastructure, pensions and health insurance far into
the future. The cost of public employee raises and benefits, along with
higher fuel prices, are impacting city and town budgets. We've already
got the second highest per-capita debt in the country. A national
Yet all three top Beacon Hill leaders — Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate
President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Sal DiMasi — have stated
their opposition to broad-based state tax increases. The legislative
leaders have even said no, so far, to the meals tax increase requested
by the governor, and refused to play "let's pretend that casinos will
fix the deficit."
Instead, they took on the private-sector unions who were demanding
casinos, which seems to have given them the courage to take on some of
the public employee unions as well. The same three leaders are now
addressing citizen outrage about the police details by proposing to end
that "only in Massachusetts" practice at least on secondary roads,
alleys, and dead-end streets.
Last year they began to address local pension and health insurance
issues by encouraging communities to move into the more cost-efficient
state system, though they allowed local unions to block these savings.
Now, finally, they seem open to getting the unions out of the way of
better management decisions at the local level.
Having given intransigent union leaders a chance to cooperate,
legislators now have the public on their side if they take them on. It
will be interesting to see if the police unions have sense enough to
give in on the minor detail changes, or if their union leaders try to
muscle their opposition through — thereby giving the Legislature an
excuse to abolish details altogether.
If only someone would explain the facts of the marketplace to public
safety union members, who sometimes seem hurt by public resistance to
overtime scams. What limits their base pay is not lack of public support
or appreciation, but simply the fact that lots of people are waiting in
line to take these jobs. In the nonunionized sector of the economy,
employers pay only enough to get someone competent to take the job —
there is no collective bargaining, while almost everyone is "working
without a contract," or not working at all because their employer is
facing a recession.
The government won't go out of business, but it, too, operates to some
extent in the marketplace, where recession affects revenues and every
tax increase is a pay cut for many taxpayers.
Proposition 2½ at least limits property taxes, and while the House has
tried to make overrides easier by exempting senior citizens from paying
them, the Senate is balking at forcing younger people and families to
pay the seniors' share. Proponents are therefore urging the Senate to
expand the exemption to these groups as well, basically creating a
graduated property tax.
This would not only be unfair "representation without taxation," it
reminds us of Alexis De Tocqueville's warning that "the government of
the democracy is the only one under which the power that votes the taxes
escapes the payment of them." And to my broader point, local voters can
help force essential reforms by saying no to overrides; and the Senate
should help Newton taxpayers say no to Mayor Cohen's $200 million high
school by refusing to make overrides easier to pass.
Meanwhile Speaker DiMasi is responding to local officials' pleas for
more local aid by proposing a Municipal Audit Bureau to watch how local
aid is spent. I'd like to see auditors make recommendations for state
assistance in negotiating municipal contracts and an overhaul of state
mandates, especially those governing special education.
I hope the state won't simply pass a few minor reforms as a prelude to
major tax increases; I hope that the time has come for a major spring
cleaning. Hope along with me.
-- Part 2 --
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.