Spring brings arrival of the crocuses and the gimmee
by Barbara Anderson
Salem Evening News, March 17, 2000
The golden crocuses are blooming in my
front yard, and you know what that means.
It's the time of year when Proposition
2½ overrides sprout like skunk cabbage, and the sound of the gimmee cuckoo is heard in
the land. "Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee" it shrieks at town meetings, city council
meetings, and budget hearings on Beacon Hill.
Like many military families, we once
bought a German cuckoo clock at the commissary. In the middle of the first night's
attempted sleep, we turned it off forever. Wish it were that easy to turn off the gimmee
Proposition 2½ partly drowns it out at
the local level; the increase in the property tax levy is limited to 2½ percent more than
the previous year's levy, with a factor for new growth. It can only grow faster with a
voter-approved override or debt exclusion.
The property tax, however, is only part
of a community's revenues; the statewide average increase each year has exceeded the rate
of inflation. According to the Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services (DLS),
statewide local expenditures increased 31.2 percent for Fiscal Years 1990 through 1998,
when inflation was 23.9 percent.
The latest DLS newsletter has a chart
detailing this spending. General government went up 21.5 percent. Education went up 52.6
percent. These percentages do not include capital outlay or construction costs.
The cities and towns, in the aggregate,
had $773 million in various local "free cash" and "rainy day fund"
accounts last year. Yet the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) last week deplored
the state's recently enacted tax cuts, predicting that "these cuts will clearly
restrict the state's ability to expand programs."
How much more can they expand? The state
budget doubled in the past dozen years. New state slush funds are being discovered weekly,
the most recent being a huge surplus in the little-used Medical Security Trust Fund,
despite the so-called health care crisis. Early this month, a coalition of Massachusetts
gimmee organizations urged the Massachusetts Legislature to spend the $70 million surplus
in the federal welfare block grant funds, even though the welfare rolls are down and
entry-level jobs are plentiful.
MMA also predictably warns against the
two November tax cut ballot questions, stating that they "would have a greater impact
on the state budget than Proposition 2½ had on local government."
Yes, and what was that impact again? When
Prop 2½ was on the ballot in 1980, opponents including the MMA, Mass. Taxpayers
Foundation, League of Women Voters and public employee unions predicted fiscal disaster
for the cities and towns. The voters, fed up with the highest property taxes in the
nation, voted for it anyhow, and the state was finally pressured into sharing its revenues
with the cities and towns on a regular, fairly predictable basis.
Opponents said that this sharing would
decimate state services (see state budget increase, slush funds, above). The truth is, the
gimmee lobby can never get enough.
Peabody mayor Peter Torigian is an
unlikely member of that lobby, but his recent actions are indicative. First he was quoted
in this paper in opposition to the income tax rate rollback. "That's $1.1 billion in
revenue lost. That's billion with a B," Torigian says. It doesn't take a mathematical
genius to see that when you reduce revenues and you increase costs because the state
budget is up -- you have some problems."
Hello, Mr. Mayor. That's 1.1 billion with
a B in revenue returned to the taxpayers, many of whom live in your city. And it doesn't
take a math genius to add up the state surpluses and slush funds before knee-jerk-deciding
that reducing state revenues is "a problem."
Then while expressing his concern that a
state tax cut could cause property tax increases, the Peabody mayor, using the government
power of eminent domain, took the land of two elderly farmers, over their strenuous
objections, for a new school. Hello again, Mr. Mayor: the reason we all want to keep
property taxes down is so that the government won't take our homes when we're old.
The bigger and stronger the government
is, the scarier it gets. Take our money, take our homes: the gimmee lobby will never have
enough. The sound of its greed is heard in the land in all seasons, demanding what it
never earned, caring nothing for the earners, the homeowners, the elderly farmers. If we
continue to feed it then we are the ones who are cuckoo.