Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
May 12, 1999

Oh, Promise Me ... and I Shall Vote for You

My father never broke a promise. It's easy never to break a promise that you haven't made.

Dad's basic rule was this: never promise anything that you aren't certain you can do. Since the world might end tomorrow, he obviously can't promise to drive us to the movies next weekend.

I learned the lesson by osmosis. Since a promise was too sacred to risk having to break, it should never be made at all. Even at my weddings, I made it clear that I wasn't promising to stay married til death did us part. My son was also raised to keep his word if for some reason he had to give it, and as far as I know he always has.

This means that there were at least three generations of us ill-equipped to deal with politicians.

Not that all politicians are untrustworthy. Just as there are birds that don't fly, there are politicians that don't make or break false promises. The President of the United States is not among them, nor is Marty "my constituents need me so I can't keep my term limits pledge" Meehan. Nor are most members of the Massachusetts Legislature.

During the tempestuous 1989 debate that increased the state income tax rate from 5 to 5.75 percent, legislative leaders told their anxious members to assure their angry constituents it would only be temporary. Majority leader Charlie Flaherty spoke for the House: "There won't be a permanent tax bill," he said. "That's a given. I hope people understand that."

The "temporary" tax hike passed the House by just four votes; without the cover of the promise, it would not have become law.

All media accounts at the time used the adjective "temporary" to describe the 5.75 percent rate. Legislators who try to deny the 1989 intent have looked ridiculous, so some of them now admit that, yes, that tax increase was temporary, but another hike the next year was not. Other legislators insist that because they weren't in office at the time, the promise doesn't apply to them.

Early this month, shortly after he voted not to keep the income tax promise, Rep. Jim Fagan (D-Taunton) was outraged because the Massachusetts House voted to break a promise that certain communities, including his, would never be assessed by the MBTA.

Well, what did he expect: honor among thieves? Serves you right, Fagan: tax by the broken promise, be assessed by the broken promise. Go home and tell your city what its taxpayers were told about the income tax: a vote from one legislative session cannot bind future legislative sessions.

Remind them about the Indians, who believed the promise made by the Great White Father that they would keep their land if they surrendered. No one warned them that the promise was only good until that particular Great White Father died, then it was off to the reservation forever.

What are we still doing in NATO? The North Atlantic Treaty wasn't signed by Clinton or ratified by the present Congress, so it's obviously no longer in effect.

Rep. Brad Jones (R-Reading), along with all House Republicans, voted to keep the Commonwealth's word on the income tax rate cut. During the debate, he argued that, "I wasn't a member of the House when education reform was approved but I feel obligated to fund it."

Rep. Phil Travis (D-Rehoboth), who was in the Legislature when the tax rollback promise was made, also argued to keep it. Only five other Democrats joined him in voting "yes."

Almost all the other reps looked for "wiggle room": another tax increase was passed in 1990 on top of the temporary one; other tax cuts have been passed instead; legally, legislators cannot bind a future legislature; politically, no one holds politicians accountable for their lies and broken promises anyhow.

If my father were watching the political worms wiggle, he would turn away in disgust. So should we all.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.  Her syndicated columns appear in the Salem Evening News, the Lowell Sun, the Tinytown Gazette and other publications around the state.

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