". . . if I repent of anything, it is likely
to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so
"I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better
— Henry David Thoreau, born July 12, 1817
If he were still alive, instead of rolling over in his grave about
today's size and state of government, Thoreau would be 191 years old
next month. I celebrate his birthday early this year to combine it with
last week's 30th anniversary of California's Proposition 13, the first
modern example of taxpayer misbehavior.
A recent Field survey showed that 57 percent of California voters would
vote for it again today, despite revved-up opposition from that state's
public employee unions. A celebratory editorial in the San Diego
Union-Tribute explains why it is and was necessary:
"The passage of the measure in 1978 paralleled the beginning of an
aggressive push by public employees unions to gather and wield public
power. It paid off. Many school districts are now dominated by teachers
unions, many cities by police and fire unions, and the Legislature by a
union coalition. This explains why the cost of public employee pay and
benefits have exploded over the past generation."
Exploded but, as in our own property-tax limitation state, with some
protection at least for the property taxpayers. They're protected, that
is, except when some demon possesses them and they vote for overrides
for employee pay increases and extraordinary benefits given in place of
school maintenance and repair programs.
A senior citizen who asked members of my town's school committee about
deferred maintenance was told, "We're educators," implying that it's not
their job to take care of the buildings. Well, whose job is it, then?
My heartfelt congratulations to the taxpayer activists who have
organized to fight overrides this year: win or lose, I'm sure you made
Thoreau proud. If enough voters listen to people like you across the
commonwealth this year — roughly half the overrides are failing so far —
we may yet get "better government," as local and state governments take
on the unions and demand cooperation for savings initiatives.
The Tewksbury Advocate ran a story about the defeat of that town's
override. Selectman Anne Marie Stronach, who worked hard to pass it,
"said she thinks the majority of voters opposing the override shows a
lack of trust in local, state and federal government," the paper
"We need to continue to build trust in the community," Stronach told the
paper. "I just think they thought they weren't going to get anything for
the override. They don't want it to go to salaries, they don't want it
to go to pensions. Overall, they don't trust us with the money,
statewide and federally."
Now there is an insightful, useful response to an override defeat, much
better than the usual whining that local voters don't care about
education. If government at all levels were to "get" what Selectman
Stronach "gets," we might eventually all get the kind of government that
the voters of Tewksbury and Beverly — which defeated a school override
earlier this month — deserve.
Speaking of narrative on tax issues, Governor Deval Patrick was asked on
WTKK's Eagan-Braude show last week about his plans to actively oppose
Carla Howell's income tax repeal initiative if it is on November's
ballot. While he acknowledged citizen frustration with the lack of
reform, he noted that we pay the income tax because we don't want to
pave our own roads, build our own airports or dig our own latrines.
Dig our own latrines? I thought I'd heard all the outrageous threatened
consequences of a vote to cut or limit taxes, but this is a new one; and
by the way, governor, in most communities water and sewer bills are paid
by user fee, not the income tax. The gas tax is supposed to get the
roads paved. And no one is building an airport here next year.
Yes, the vote to repeal the state income tax, like earlier votes on Prop
13 and Prop 2½, would definitely frustrate Thoreau's "behaving well"
demon. Citizens who "behave well" when they are dealing with governments
that behave badly, do not contribute to the long-term common good.
I am convinced that the enemy of the good is not, as commonly thought,
voter apathy, but voter disgust, which leads to dropping out and voter
niceness, which leads in turn to giving in to the unions and other
I admit to the former, myself. I've had to admit to local reporters that
no one is actively fighting my own town's debt exclusion override this
year. Most of us Marblehead activists who worked to pass the original
Prop 2½ are either dead — Pat Warnock, Jim Hourihan, Milton Bloom, Tom
Jordan — or old like me.
When urged by several people to "do something," I did misbehave at town
meeting, speaking in opposition to the override, and got two votes, mine
and Jean Eldridge's. The other urgers must not have been there.
So instead of pounding "Vote No" lawn signs into front yards, I lie in
my hammock reading Bob Kelly's fascinating book on the national debt,
dreaming of once again being young and vigorous like Elliott Margolis
and the members of his team that beat back the override in Beverly.
Way to misbehave, guys!
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.