Unacknowledged in the House-Senate budget conferences last week -- but a looming
presence nonetheless -- is the rising threat of a contentious plebiscite on rolling back
the state income tax.
With coffers overflowing, the economy booming and government growth outstripping
inflation three-fold, Beacon Hill continues to resist rolling back the temporary 5.95
percent rate. The debt incurred in the collapse of the Massachusetts "miracle"
has long since been retired.
Lawmakers' excuses for maintaining the emergency tax rate have long since worn
People are fully justified in asking: If not now, when?
The House budget does include a modest reduction to 5.75 percent. The Senate,
adamant on income taxes, offers a smattering of small "targeted" tax cuts
Taxpayers who are unsatisfied with sops will have a chance to express their
Gov. Paul Cellucci, who pledged to fight for a rollback to the pre-1989 rate of 5
percent, has filed a bill to do that in three stages spread over the years 2000, 2001 and
2002. The cuts would total $1.4 billion when fully in force and amount to an average $600
annual reduction for a family of four.
As the Legislature reconciles its budget proposals, Cellucci has reiterated that
if lawmakers fail to act, he will take the issue to voters in a ballot referendum in the
fall of 2000.
A total of 66,617 [*see correction below] signatures
would be needed to force the ballot question. Cellucci has promised he and his political
network would be involved aggressively in the process.
That support virtually assures the success of the signature drive. Once on the
ballot, voters certainly will approve a tax cut.
Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham -- who continues to oppose any rollback --
told members of the Telegram & Gazette editorial board last week that he was not about
to "draw a line in the sand" on the issue.
Whether that signals flexibility on the tax issue remains to be seen.
What does seem clear is that if the Legislature fails to act on a rollback plan of
its own, the people will do the job next year.