and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
June #2

'Misbehaving' voters beat back override attempts
in Beverly, elsewhere
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, June 12, 2008

". . . if I repent of anything, it is likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?"

"I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government."

Henry David Thoreau, born July 12, 1817

If he were still alive, instead of rolling over in his grave about today's size and state of government, Thoreau would be 191 years old next month. I celebrate his birthday early this year to combine it with last week's 30th anniversary of California's Proposition 13, the first modern example of taxpayer misbehavior.

A recent Field survey showed that 57 percent of California voters would vote for it again today, despite revved-up opposition from that state's public employee unions. A celebratory editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribute explains why it is and was necessary:

"The passage of the measure in 1978 paralleled the beginning of an aggressive push by public employees unions to gather and wield public power. It paid off. Many school districts are now dominated by teachers unions, many cities by police and fire unions, and the Legislature by a union coalition. This explains why the cost of public employee pay and benefits have exploded over the past generation."

Exploded but, as in our own property-tax limitation state, with some protection at least for the property taxpayers. They're protected, that is, except when some demon possesses them and they vote for overrides for employee pay increases and extraordinary benefits given in place of school maintenance and repair programs.

A senior citizen who asked members of my town's school committee about deferred maintenance was told, "We're educators," implying that it's not their job to take care of the buildings. Well, whose job is it, then?

My heartfelt congratulations to the taxpayer activists who have organized to fight overrides this year: win or lose, I'm sure you made Thoreau proud. If enough voters listen to people like you across the commonwealth this year roughly half the overrides are failing so far we may yet get "better government," as local and state governments take on the unions and demand cooperation for savings initiatives.

The Tewksbury Advocate ran a story about the defeat of that town's override. Selectman Anne Marie Stronach, who worked hard to pass it, "said she thinks the majority of voters opposing the override shows a lack of trust in local, state and federal government," the paper reported.

"We need to continue to build trust in the community," Stronach told the paper. "I just think they thought they weren't going to get anything for the override. They don't want it to go to salaries, they don't want it to go to pensions. Overall, they don't trust us with the money, statewide and federally."

Now there is an insightful, useful response to an override defeat, much better than the usual whining that local voters don't care about education. If government at all levels were to "get" what Selectman Stronach "gets," we might eventually all get the kind of government that the voters of Tewksbury and Beverly which defeated a school override earlier this month deserve.

Speaking of narrative on tax issues, Governor Deval Patrick was asked on WTKK's Eagan-Braude show last week about his plans to actively oppose Carla Howell's income tax repeal initiative if it is on November's ballot. While he acknowledged citizen frustration with the lack of reform, he noted that we pay the income tax because we don't want to pave our own roads, build our own airports or dig our own latrines.

Dig our own latrines? I thought I'd heard all the outrageous threatened consequences of a vote to cut or limit taxes, but this is a new one; and by the way, governor, in most communities water and sewer bills are paid by user fee, not the income tax. The gas tax is supposed to get the roads paved. And no one is building an airport here next year.

Yes, the vote to repeal the state income tax, like earlier votes on Prop 13 and Prop 2, would definitely frustrate Thoreau's "behaving well" demon. Citizens who "behave well" when they are dealing with governments that behave badly, do not contribute to the long-term common good.

I am convinced that the enemy of the good is not, as commonly thought, voter apathy, but voter disgust, which leads to dropping out and voter niceness, which leads in turn to giving in to the unions and other special interests.

I admit to the former, myself. I've had to admit to local reporters that no one is actively fighting my own town's debt exclusion override this year. Most of us Marblehead activists who worked to pass the original Prop 2 are either dead Pat Warnock, Jim Hourihan, Milton Bloom, Tom Jordan or old like me.

When urged by several people to "do something," I did misbehave at town meeting, speaking in opposition to the override, and got two votes, mine and Jean Eldridge's. The other urgers must not have been there.

So instead of pounding "Vote No" lawn signs into front yards, I lie in my hammock reading Bob Kelly's fascinating book on the national debt, dreaming of once again being young and vigorous like Elliott Margolis and the members of his team that beat back the override in Beverly.

Way to misbehave, guys!

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.