and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
October #1

Still waiting for her property taxes to go down
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Tell me the truth: Do I look dumb enough to believe that if my income tax remains one of the highest in the nation, my property taxes will go down?

To all those who are trying to convince me that rolling back the income tax rate will cause my property taxes to rise even more than they have: I was born at night (9:55 p.m.), but not last night. Not even last February. I've been around for a while, and I know the score.

Similar scams were run in the past. That's how we got the income tax in the first place.

Property taxes here were always higher than in most other states, so taxpayers were told that if the state had an income tax, like those other states, our property taxes would go down.

Then they were told that if Massachusetts had a 3-percent sales tax, property taxes would go down. Then, that if the state increased the sales tax to 5 percent, property taxes would go down. Then, that if we had a state lottery, property taxes would go down.

There would be so much local aid to the cities and towns, people were told each time, that state money would begin to replace the property tax.

By 1980, we had a 5-percent income tax rate, a 7-percent income tax surtax, a 5-percent sales tax, a state lottery, and a lot of other unusual things like the automobile excise; AND we had the highest property taxes in the world! The income tax was the highest in the nation. Yet the state shared very little of its own revenues with the cities and towns.

We dumb, naive voters woke up that year. We passed Proposition 2, cutting the property tax and limiting its growth in the future. Yes, finally, the property tax went down. And the Legislature got the message - finally, the state gave more aid to cities and towns.

During that campaign, our opponents warned that a property tax cut would just increase our income tax. It didn't; instead, the "temporary" 1974 Dukakis 7-percent surtax was removed in 1986, restoring the rate to its traditional 5 percent.

What eventually increased the income tax was state overspending on many things, not just local aid. The state spent giant surpluses, the cities and towns spent both their property tax and local aid revenue, and the Massachusetts per capita total tax burden remained high.

During the 1989 state fiscal crisis, the income tax was hiked "temporarily" again, so during the '90s there were more giant state surpluses and record amounts of local aid. Property taxes, though still limited by Prop 2, continued to increase every year. There were still many overrides, which were often used for pay raises and benefits that increased a community's "fixed costs," leading to demands for more overrides.

Finally, on the 2000 ballot, voters again restored the income tax rate to 5 percent, with a three-year rollback. But by then the state had already spent itself into another fiscal crisis, and the rollback was frozen.

Local aid was cut. Communities spent their annual property tax allowance; then some of them, accustomed to the annual state handout, went crying to their voters for more overrides.

My town passed one, to make up for the lost local aid. The state ran up another surplus, and sent some of it to Marblehead - which kept the override money anyhow, and my property taxes went up.

So, here I am, higher income tax, higher property tax, listening to candidates and special interest groups insisting that if the state keeps the $675 million instead of rolling back the income tax to 5 percent, this will help property taxpayers.

No, it won't. But if I get my income tax rollback, I can at least use it to help pay for the inevitable property tax increase; or the fees that communities toss on top of the local tax bill. Because spending money is so much more fun than living with limits.

Or maybe I can use the extra money from an income-tax rollback to fix the flat tire I got driving on roads that are not repaired despite our high gasoline tax.

It's not just candidates like Deval Patrick and Christy Mihos who think we're dumb enough to buy their arguments for not cutting the income-tax rate. It's the so-called Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which wrings its corporate-funded hands over state overspending, while fighting the tax cuts that could prevent this. It's economists like Ed Moscovitch of Cape Ann Economics, who wants the higher income tax because he deplores the "most unfair" property tax.

Point of information, readers: both MTF and Ed Moscovitch are long-time opponents of Proposition 2; I have debated them both in defense of it. So join me in not buying their concern about property taxpayers.

Our total per-capita tax burden in Massachusetts is fourth highest in the nation. The voters told the state to keep its promise that the income tax hike would be temporary. Candidates and tax advocates who want to ignore the voters should at least be asked to show us their plan - the one that cuts property taxes by $675 million. I haven't seen it yet -- have you?

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