and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
January #4

State of the state: Maybe it's all just a bad dream
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Here we are, in the very middle of winter. Yet I'm not depressed at all.

Actually, I don't tend to get depressed anytime, probably a genetic thing. Also, I am winter's child, born in February, so I'm looking forward to my birthday cake. And, I work from home, and if I do have to go out, Chip does the snowblowing, so I'm not personally inconvenienced by unsettled weather. (Don't ask me about Chip's winter state of mind as he clears snow, chops firewood to keep his house warm enough and counts the days until sailing season.)

TV is good this time of year. "Rome" is back on HBO, "24" is more fun than ever, and "American Idol" has again begun its nationwide search for talent while waging war on self-delusion. I enjoy "Friday Night Lights" and "House," and have been looking forward to "The Power of Choice," about the life and ideas of Milton Friedman, on PBS beginning this Monday at 10 p.m.

Began PBS' "Jane Eyre" last night, then had a nightmare about a little orphan whose pet parrot was going to be taken from her and killed. Woke up, told myself to go back to sleep and solve the problem; and in my next dream phase, the orphan and her parrot were rescued by a rich widow who found her beloved grandmother's large wicker parrot cage in the attic.

Now if I could only do the same sort of salvage job after President Bush's State of the Union address ...

Not to mention the state of the state. You'd think a taxpayer activist would be depressed about all the talk of deficits, taxes and program meltdowns; but I've been here before, and it's more interesting this time with Gov. Deval Patrick's administration. Maybe the voters who had expectations -- property tax relief, a thousand more police officers, all the things we can do together -- are getting depressed; but I'm just shaking my head, amused and bemused.

Candidate Patrick said there was $750 million in waste that he could cut to fund his initiatives. Governor Patrick says it will take a few years to find it. But if he doesn't know where it is, how did he know last fall that it added up to $750 million?

We'll have to wait for that property tax relief, too, unless you want to count the governor's new local option taxes, which he thinks will take some pressure off the property tax. This is what happens when someone with no experience in either state or local government is elected simply because he's a fresh new face. He gets these fresh new ideas that are actually very old and have been rejected before, and for good reason.

Years ago, I was on a commission that was created to find alternatives to the property tax. Mine was one of the governor's appointments, but liberal legislators chaired the commission, and we all came to the same conclusion about local option taxes: Forget about them.

The biggest problem is competitiveness: Taxpayers will avoid local taxes by going to another locality that doesn't opt into a local sales tax, meals tax, hotel tax or whatever tax creative local government minds can devise. So if Patrick insists on the new taxes, the Legislature is likely to remove the phrase "local option" and force them on communities across the board at the request of businesses who fear loss of customers.

Then, come the next fiscal crisis, local aid will be cut because cities and towns have all these wonderful new options and don't need the state's money. Or, should the "local option" concept survive, communities that haven't taken advantage of this revenue-raising gift will be the first to lose local aid until they show a greater willingness to tax themselves.

Meanwhile, the senior citizens whose property tax burden the governor promised to address, will continue to pay high property taxes and also pay an additional meals tax when they meet their friends at the coffee shop for breakfast.

Moving on to another fresh gubernatorial initiative, I laughed out loud reading the item in this newspaper about the agreement Patrick just signed to charge power plants a fee for carbon dioxide emissions, and the local Democratic politicians' response to the loss of property tax revenues from a possibly devalued Salem facility. Not that it's funny: Mayor Kim Driscoll has worked hard to balance her budget, and some of the fee will be passed along to us consumers; it's just amazing to me that a governor would do this to other politicians of his own party without talking with them first. What happened to the inclusiveness-togetherness thing?

And, of course, there's the governor's plan to charge prisoners a fee to cover the cost of the new policemen. Why not charge them to cover the cost of the existing force, too? After all, if it weren't for criminals, we'd hardly need policemen at all!

Just tax us all to give the prisoners more spending money, then charge them for the entire criminal justice system.

I think I'll just hibernate until Groundhog Day and dream that we elected Kerry Healey last November.

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