The Boston Globe
Monday, December 11, 2000
Against the tax cut? Give it back
By Jeff Jacoby
I WAS an avid supporter of Question 4, the ballot question rolling back the Massachusetts
income tax rate to 5 percent. I was thrilled when it won in a landslide. At the same time, I
know how galling that outcome must have been to Question 4's opponents, and I can
sympathize. As a conservative in Massachusetts, after all, I am only too familiar with
frustrating election returns.
Once your side has lost at the polls, there is usually nothing to do except swallow your
disappointment and hope for fairer winds next time. But those who opposed the Question 4
tax cut are more fortunate than most, because this time there is something to soften the blow.
Income tax returns in Massachusetts, as in other states, include optional check-offs for
taxpayers who wish to contribute to a worthy cause -- organ transplants, for example,
or endangered wildlife conservation. Though the individual donations are modest, they can add
up. In 1998, for example, 31,043 taxpayers contributed to the wildlife fund, raising a
total of $225,245.
Now come Chip Ford and Barbara Anderson, the Citizens for Limited Taxation crusaders
who, with Governor Paul Cellucci, put Question 4 on the ballot, with an idea for a new
Under the CLT plan, taxpayers who think the tax rollback is a mistake would be able to
decline it. No extra paperwork would be required. They would simply calculate their tax under
the old rate -- a table would be included in the instruction booklet sent by the Department of
Revenue -- and donate what would have been their tax cut to the treasury. The average
contribution might be small -- critics of Question 4 liked to note during the campaign that the
typical tax cut would only amount to "a pizza a week" -- but in the aggregate they would
make quite a nice windfall for the Commonwealth.
The CLT proposal has been introduced as a bill by Senators Jo Anne Sprague of Walpole and
Robert Hedlund of Weymouth. If it passes, says Ford, "everyone will be a winner -- not only
the voters who wanted tax relief, but also our opponents who kept saying that the state needed
the money more than they needed their extra slice of pizza."
It isn't often that people who lose an election get the chance to show that their campaign
rhetoric was sincere. But this is just such an opportunity for the enemies of Question 4,
who warned in dire terms that cutting taxes would spell disaster:
"The massive tax cuts proposed for the November ballot will result in crippling cuts to
education, health care, public safety, local aid, bridges and road repair" -- Robert Haynes,
president, Massachusetts AFL-CIO.
"Massachusetts needs to invest in education, health care, and our infrastructure.... We cannot
make those investments while financing the Big Dig and paying for this risky tax cut"
-- James St. George, executive director, Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts.
"Providing ... a first-class public education costs money
-- and we won't have the money ... if
the Cellucci/Swift tax cut is approved. It would be a bleak day for the children of
Massachusetts if the governor's income tax cut and the [turnpike toll rebate] were to pass....
This year, the most important lesson we have to teach is a moral one: For the sake
of our children, for the sake of our schools, stop the tax cut!" -- Stephen
Gorrie, president, Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Did those who denounced Question 4 so heatedly really mean the things they said? When they
claimed "they'd rather spend the surplus on reducing class size, fixing school buildings,
and expanding access to health care" (St. George), were they telling the truth? If so, they should
embrace CLT's check-off and urge their followers to donate the tax cut back to the
state. The big-government liberals at TEAM and the MTA ought to leap at this chance to put their money
where their mouths were. If they did, anti-tax conservatives like me would stand and
cheer, applauding their integrity and intellectual consistency.
Alas, they'd rather have the money.
"We weren't arguing that we wanted to pay more in taxes," says TEAM's St. George. "We
wanted the state to have the funding necessary to provide a certain level of services."
But isn't it hypocritical to condemn the tax cut as selfish -- and then pocket it anyway?
"We play by the rules as they exist, not as they would be if we were benevolent dictators."
How about the teachers union? Surely -- for the children's sake -- the MTA would encourage
citizens to let the state keep the money. Right?
Wrong. "That's not how a democratic society works," Jo Blum, the union's director of
governmental services, tells me. "We don't use check-offs to pay for schools, bridges, health
What a pity. The enemies of Question 4 always said they would rather forgo a tax cut so that
the state could have more money. CLT's check-off would make it easy for them to live up
to their word. Who would have guessed that living up to their word was never really their priority?
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.