Who's watching the watchdog?
The question comes up as the Massachusetts Taxpayers
Foundation prepares to throw its misunderstood muscle behind a move to rewind the income tax rate to 5.6 percent.
"That certainly is the direction we're heading," admits MTF
President Michael Widmer.
And it's likely to thrust the "fiscally conservative" MTF
right into the wheelhouse of tax-and-spend liberals.
Tough times apparently call for tough measures in Widmer's
book: Another MBTA fare increase is also reportedly on tap as a recommendation in a separate MTF report.
But one thing is clear: The foundation has already muffed
its chance on both counts to win over Kevin Sullivan, the new Administration & Finance secretary.
Call it a misunderstanding, but the evidence suggests
somebody was trying to sandbag Sullivan -- formerly Transportation secretary -- when he was invited to be an expert
panelist at a Feb. 27 MTF round table on MBTA capital spending.
"It was sort of a generic invitation to speak," Sullivan
But Widmer's MBTA report -- prepared in concert with the
Pioneer Institute -- in fact suggests the T's newfound success as a self-supporting entity is doomed to failure once expansion
projects, such as the Greenbush Line, start to add up.
"I have a lot of respect for Mike Widmer and the MTF ... but
I was a little surprised to learn that it was going to be such a negative depiction of the T," Sullivan says, arguing that
just 25 cents of every MBTA dollar is committed to expansion programs.
What's more, Sullivan says his top aide Charles Kostro was
told "it wasn't (MTF) policy to share the report before it became public" -- as on the morning of Feb. 27.
"They clearly wanted input into the report," Widmer retorts.
"He didn't just want it for the forum."
Nothing wrong with a little hardball. Both men plan to
straighten things out at a meeting today.
But Sullivan won't budge on the issues.
"Their conclusions on the state budget and the MBTA are not
accurate, and they're not creative," he says. "I'm surprised that one of the first things on the table is to raise taxes."
Of course, the real muscle behind MTF is its star-studded
governing boards -- three partially overlapping committees loaded with corporate firepower: Charlie Baker from Harvard
Pilgrim; Chet Messer from Keyspan Energy; Robert Mudge from Verizon; and Nancy Leaming from Tufts Health Plan, to name just
Widmer -- a one-time Mike Dukakis lieutenant but also a
self-described moderate -- "doesn't take major policy initiatives without the support and approval of the board of
trustees," says FleetBoston Senior Vice President Jim Mahoney, a member of the MTF Program Committee.
The common misunderstanding, however, is that MTF always
represents the interests of the average Bay State taxpayer.
Consider: If the dividing line in this budget crisis is
program cuts vs. tax cuts, how has it become so easy for the MTF and a growing legion of corporate and political voices to
disregard the will of the electorate?
"If 59 percent of the voters decide they want a tax cut,
then everyone has a responsibility to respect that decision," says David Tuerck, of the conservative Beacon Hill Institute.
Acting Gov. Jane Swift needs to rethink some of the gimmicks
in her own budget plan -- slashing Lottery payouts comes to mind. But she was right on last week in a
speech to the Greater
Boston Chamber of Commerce, where she warned business leaders who would freeze the income-tax rollback that to do so is
opening a doorway to economic peril.
"Make no mistake: Any number of the business tax cuts that
have contributed to our economic growth and yours will be next," Swift said. "Business tax increases are an easy sell to
a wary public."
Indeed, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran recently mentioned
the hard-fought tax relief for both Fidelity Investments and Raytheon in the same breath as other possible targets for
"They've already raised taxes on the poor and middle class,"
Swift told Boston's corporate elite. "Where do you think they're going to turn next?"
Not a bad question for the MTF.
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