Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
March 2001 #1

A liberal definition of conservative
by Barbara Anderson

We called him Zero Piro.

This was not a nasty personal attack; for all I knew, Rep. Vinny Piro (D-Somerville) was a fine person with a successful personal life. The "zero" referred to his taxpayers' rating with Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT): zero out of a possible 100 percent.

And yet he was referred to, in the media, as a conservative. So was then-Speaker of the Massachusetts House, Thomas McGee. And Senate President William Bulger. But none of them supported the tax cuts and tax limitation that were proposed by Governor Edward J. King, whom I have always considered Mr. Conservative, Massachusetts.

Now House Speaker Thomas Finneran and his new Ways & Means Chairman John Rogers are referred to as conservatives. While not zero, their average ratings with CLT over the past six years is only 25 percent. They opposed the three-year income tax rollback and a reduction in the so-called unearned income tax rate, but once voted to increase property taxes by the rate of inflation instead of the present Prop 2 limit.

While he was Ways & Means Chairman, Finneran also attempted to increase property taxes by the amount of the community overlay fund, and Rogers voted with him. They failed only because Governor Weld repeatedly vetoed the proposal.

I have always thought that conservatives wanted to conserve my access to my own money, and keep the size of government under control. Finneran did not support Proposition 2 in the early '80s, and voted not to repeal the Dukakis surtax until it was on the ballot and the legislative leadership relented.

However, he did vote for the tax hikes of 1989-90. Rogers wasn't in the Legislature then, but he voted, with Finneran, for the taxpayer-funded convention center and eminent domain takings for Fenway Park, two bigger-government initiatives.

They did support many of the other tax cuts over the past decade that were supported by the Legislature in general, and opposed the graduated income tax. But overall, if it had been up to Tom Finneran and John Rogers, I'd have less of my own money to spend and government would be bigger than it is.

When the media describes a legislator as conservative, maybe it's not thinking "fiscal," but referring only to the so-called "social issues"? I'm not sure what that phrase means, but for the purpose of discussion I'm going to assume it includes choice issues, gay rights, welfare and gun control. Organizations that call themselves conservative - and they should know - are pro-life and pro-gun rights, while considering homosexuality a sin and welfare a last and temporary resort.

There haven't been recent key votes on abortion or gay issues in the Massachusetts House, but both Finneran and Rogers are considered traditionalists on these issues. Rogers has filed an anti-gay-marriage bill, and says he is "pro-life."

They also support welfare reform, which saves the taxpayers money as well as encouraging personal responsibility. However, Finneran has a mixed record on gun control issues, while Rogers consistently votes against the right to bear arms.

The death penalty, which they both oppose, is generally considered a "law and order" conservative issue. However, some people oppose it because they dislike giving the power of life and death to the government, a conservative concern.

Conservatives generally support school choice, and both Finneran and Rogers have supported charter schools. However, while many conservatives want education vouchers, others fear giving the government access to private and religious education.

William Safire's New Political Dictionary defines "conservative" literally, as a "defender of the status quo ... who prefers that change come slowly, and in moderation." If we are talking about change from the values of our founding fathers, a conservative would be for the Second Amendment, limited taxes and government, and against abortion. But he would probably want quick and dramatic change from the present high taxes, big government, gun control, and abortion rights. The definition doesn't work anymore.

"Liberal" is even harder to define: classic liberals are in fact, libertarian, while modern liberals are high-tax supporters of bigger government. Safire defines the former as "one who resisted government encroachment on individual liberties" and the latter as "one who believes in more government action to meet individual needs." One could probably get away with being both those things at once, if government action weren't funded by individuals who are forced to contribute.

To add to the confusion, many conservatives believe in more government encroachment on individual liberties, which means bigger government, so go figure.

It's hard to get along without a single word which defines each of our political positions, but the time has come to admit that the words "conservative" and "liberal" don't tell us what we once thought they did. If we want to know where some legislator stands, we have to ask him more than if he's liberal or conservative - whatever that means.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem Evening News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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