and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
September #1

Proposition 2 under assault once again
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Heads up, taxpayers!

In two months we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Proposition 2, which was passed by the voters on Nov. 4, 1980 after a tempestuous ballot campaign. And in a week or so, the enemies of Prop 2 plan to attack it again.

A preliminary report from the Municipal Finance Task Force, chaired by former bank CEO John Hamill, is floating an increase in the auto excise tax.

Grateful taxpayers may recall that Prop 2 not only limited property taxes by requiring an override vote to increase them beyond the voter-passed levy limit, but it also cut the annual auto excise from $66 per $1,000 of a car's valuation to $25 per $1,000. To help local governments live with these limits, it also repealed school committees' fiscal autonomy and forbade unfunded state mandates.

And yet some ungrateful mayors are today teaming up with the business community fat cats who have always hated the law passed by us, the peasant voters.

I know this doesn't seem to make sense. Businesses also benefit from Prop 2?. And yet, not only did most of the Boston business community oppose the initiative in the first place through its mouthpiece, the so-called Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, but every now and then it tries to raise our local taxes again.


In 1989, this same John Hamill, then president of the then Shawmut Bank, was asked by Gov. Michael Dukakis to chair a Financing Local Government task force. There was a dramatic photo in some newspapers showing me sitting at its news conference and Dukakis standing behind me, hands on hips, scowling and defiant.

That task force recommended changing Prop 2 to allow property taxes to rise at the rate of inflation instead of by 2 percent a year.

Of course that 2 percent is not the real allowed increase. New construction is added now, and would have still been added with the Hamill recommendation, allowing double-digit property tax hikes during the 1990s in many communities. Plus, Hamill wanted to exclude long-term capital expenditures from Prop 2. think of all the new schools that could be built without the need for those pesky override elections.

The first Hamill task force also recommended eliminating some sales-tax exemptions, increasing the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, hiking the gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon (Put that in your tank and guzzle it!), and allowing local excise taxes on meals, events and parking, plus increased licensing fees for cable companies.

The 1989 bill was dead on arrival. The next year the Legislature raised the income tax instead, but then voters sensibly elected Republican governors and Prop 2 was safe for another 16 years.

Regardless of the enmity of some municipal officials and business leaders, there have never been enough anti-Prop 2 votes in the Legislature to override a veto.


But opponents dream on, and this year John Hamill has returned to tax again.

The auto excise was once the most hated tax in the commonwealth. People like me who moved here from other states, only four of which have such a thing, were shocked when they got that annual tax bill on their vehicles.

So when Citizens for Limited Taxation drafted Proposition 2, a cut in the auto excise was included. We still have to pay an annual bill, but it's been bearable at $25 per $1,000, especially since the depreciation formula that determines value favors the taxpayer. This, I hear, is what the Hamill Commission wants to change.

What are they thinking? Raise the auto excise at a time motorists are already struggling with gas prices approaching $3 a gallon?

And what other taxpayer-attack abomination will be in the final report if there is no opposition to this preliminary trial balloon? An income tax hike, after the voters said to cut the rate to 5 percent? (Which, incidentally, hasn't been done yet.)

Voters in cities with municipal elections this fall, and who may not have decided yet for whom to vote, might help themselves make that decision by asking all the mayoral candidates this question: What do you think of Municipal Finance Commission's proposal to increase my auto excise tax?

I asked them myself. Almost everyone I reached wanted to see the final study, but said that raising the auto excise sounded unappealing at this time of high gas and automobile prices.

Salem Mayor Usovicz said that everything needs to be on the table, including the auto depreciation formula, because of the present over-reliance on the property tax.

Challenger Kim Driscoll noted the fallacy in the argument that the excise tax hike could help avoid more property tax hikes, since the same taxpayers get hit either way. She said she'd want to see a direct offset and doesn't think that will be the proposal. I don't either.

Kevin Harvey, who's also challenging Usovicz in Salem; and John Slattery, who's taking on Peabody incumbent Michael Bonfanti, also expressed concern about increasing costs for drivers.

Bonfanti and Beverly Mayor William Scanlon were more interested in provisions giving communities flexibility in dealing with health care and state mandates. Patrick Lucci, the challenger in Beverly, says he is opposed to higher taxes, period.

Once we get the tax hikes out of the proposal, we can all have an intelligent discussion on municipal finance reform and local aid.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News, Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, (Lawrence) Eagle-Tribune, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.