and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
July #3

Governor brings forum, but no tax relief, to Salem
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Saturday, July 19, 2008

So there I was, in the presence of Gov. Deval Patrick for the first time, at Armory Park in Salem last week.

It was a pleasant evening, hot at home, but the downtown park was shaded and breezy, and Chip found us seats toward the front. Mayor Kim Driscoll did a nice introduction, and then the governor listened to members of the audience, as advertised.

This first of the governor's "town hall meetings" wasn't well-organized, with two microphones held by young staffers who stood around awkwardly as bolder people approached them or the governor pointed in the general direction of a shy upheld hand; perhaps they'll come up with a better system for future meetings.

I was glad when the woman carrying a "GIC" sign was chosen. Former Swampscott School Committee member Mary Dechillo was able to tell Patrick about the problems with getting unions to cooperate in saving on the cost of employee health insurance premiums by joining the state Group Insurance Commission (GIC).

You may recall that Swampscott lost its chance for those savings last year when its public employee union leaders insisted that all health insurance savings be given to them directly, ending the discussion.

"Would it help if the decision was mandatory, Mary?" the governor asked, to which she replied, "Absolutely," as some others in the audience nodded. He seemed genuinely interested in this and I got the impression that if the unions don't get their act together supporting the towns instead of their own selfish interests they could be removed from the process soon.

And speaking of the teachers union: To his credit, when asked about MCAS, the governor stood by his support for it, though some in the audience hissed. Of course, opponents never explain how, without consistent testing, taxpayers can judge if they are getting value for the money they spend on education.

I raised my hand and made eye contact with Patrick, who pointed at me. But as I moved toward the microphone, it was handed to a man who asked what the governor could do about high gasoline prices.

It was clear that others in the audience shared this concern, but unfortunately they didn't get much of an answer, just an outline of the governor's energy proposal.

I thought he could have said he'd cut the state gas tax, since it apparently hasn't been spent keeping the state's roads and bridges repaired. But at least the governor didn't say he'd like to raise that tax, so perhaps the question helped to derail that proposal for now.

So now it was my turn. But the young staffer had moved on, and believe it or not, readers, I'm kind of shy myself; and besides, I couldn't chase him with my sprained ankle. So I sat down until Lt. Gov. Tim Murray borrowed the governor's microphone to attack the proposed income tax repeal.

Wait! I thought. This was sold as a meeting for the governor to listen to us, not as an attack on an initiative petition by the No. 2 guy at the Statehouse. Either make it a debate with both sides represented, or go away, Tim!

Well, that wasn't going to happen, so we left instead because it was time to ice the ankle.

But if I'd had a microphone, I'd have asked him: Where is my property tax relief?

When Deval Patrick was running for governor, he was asked if he respected the voters' 2000 decision on rolling back the income tax rate to 5 percent. Understandably fearing to tell the truth, which was "no, I don't," he quickly moved to a substitute position, saying that he thought voters would really prefer property tax relief.

OK, maybe. But now he was stuck with that alternative, and had to keep promising to provide that relief. For some reason the media never pressed him on how he planned to achieve it, despite the fact many people voted for him because of this promise.

After the election, we learned the plan was good news to encourage pension and health-care savings at the local government level; and bad news to increase the meals tax. The first isn't working as well as it could because of union opposition; and if I'd had a chance to speak, I was going to thank local legislators for refusing to pass the second.

Then I was going to ask: Where's my property tax relief? Some area towns have had overrides; our property taxes are going up, not down.

Meanwhile, the state budget is increasing again, the deficits and unfunded liabilities are being ignored, while legislators play with pork that may or may not survive a veto.

So I was going to make a suggestion. "Governor," I would have said, "if you can't find a way to directly reduce the property tax, how about returning to the original question? If you would respect the voters who demanded that the income-tax rate be returned to its traditional 5 percent, you could suggest that they use the tax savings each year to pay their property taxes. This would show respect AND keep your promise of property tax relief."

It would have been very interesting to hear his reply.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears 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.