and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column

Not much to laugh about this St. Patrick's Day
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Laugh and the world laughs with you" unless, of course, the world blames you for the miserable situation that you consider funny.

Usually, I can see the funny side of politics. Even when it's truly awful, "laughter is the way in which I register despair," as Eleanor of Aquitaine said in "A Lion in Winter."

So for many years I enjoyed watching the televised coverage of Massachusetts pols' St. Patrick's Day breakfast. The last few years, not so much. This year, not at all.

I turned it on Sunday morning at 10, heard Sen. Jack Hart make a dumb joke about Catholics giving up their 401(k)s for Lent, didn't laugh, turned it off. Went back to my favorite talking-head shows: "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," "Fox News Sunday" with Chris Wallace, "Meet the Press" with David Gregory.

I got to hear representatives of the Obama administration explain why AIG is using $165 million of its $170 billion taxpayer bailout to give bonuses to its executives. But they were telling one big, unfunny joke too: "We can't prevent this because they have contracts."

Guest Barney Frank, the congressman from Newton, was even less amusing. But at least George, Chris and David weren't singing Irish pub songs between interviews.

In the past, when things went wrong with government, I'd think of George Santayana's warning about those who don't remember the past being doomed to repeat it. There was a pattern at both the state and federal levels, with economic downturns followed by recoveries, with overspending in the good times followed by cutbacks and tax hikes in the bad. It was annoying that politicians kept making the same, dumb mistakes in response to normal economic cycles; but history also reassured us that the economy would bounce back. This time, I'm not so sure that this is just a temporary cycle.

If you don't look at Massachusetts within the national and international contexts, the state's situation is familiar. Those of us who remember the past are doomed to watch politicians who do not remember it, repeat it. Here is some recent history as I've lived it.

1989. Gov. Michael Dukakis, just back from running for president on the Massachusetts Miracle, files a budget that requires a billion dollars in new taxes. Angry at having been misled about state revenues and unpaid Medicaid bills, the Legislature balks.

Then House Speaker George Keverian, who died this month, had chosen a leadership team of the best and the brightest; his style was to let them lead in their areas of expertise. Ways & Means Chairman Richard Voke, D-Chelsea, and conservative Democrats like Taxation Committee Chairman Jack Flood, D-Canton, joined with feisty Republicans to create a House budget with reforms, cuts, and "no new taxes."

It wasn't easy. Dukakis partisans attacked Keverian as "weak" and accused his leaders of lacking the courage to raise taxes. Special-interest groups flooded the Statehouse, some in costume (e.g.; welfare mothers wore chains; the "arts" lobby dressed as giant Crayola crayons). But the governor's budget was cut and went on to the Senate.

Senators were prepared to go along with the House. But when they held a budget hearing, the so-called Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) showed up and testified that its econometric model showed that revenues were improving and there was no need for such restraint. Surprised, but shrugging (Why go through what the House went through?), the Senate increased the budget again.

By summer, revenues were down and the commonwealth was in crisis. Democrats relented and passed a "temporary, 18-month hike in the state's income tax," from 5 percent to 5.75 percent. A year later, the rate was increased to 6.25 percent as part of a much larger tax package that included a sales tax on services and an increase in the gas tax from 11 cents to 21 cents a gallon, "with the proceeds going for the repair of bridges and roads," according to news accounts.

If MTF hadn't thrown a wrench in the works with inaccurate numbers, the commonwealth could have enacted major reforms instead of taxes and perhaps avoided the next fiscal crises, including this one except, of course, for this one's national aspects.

Fun-loving Democrats celebrating St. Patrick's Sunday can't be blamed for the national meltdown. They are, however, responsible for the years of union kissing-up that created the public employee pension scams, which aren't funny when private-sector working families are losing 401(k) savings. They are also responsible for taking that gas-tax increase of 1990, then allowing other Massachusetts bridges and roads to continue to deteriorate.

Voters should learn from history and if gas, sales and income-tax hikes pass again, repeat what they did in 1990: Defeat those legislators who voted for them and elect a taxpayer-friendly governor.

I did turn back to the St. Patrick's Sunday breakfast in time to hear Congressman Stephen Lynch sing about changing his name to Merrill Lynch, noting, "I'll be ready, I'll get mine!"

Have to admit: I laughed. In this case, enough public ridicule might force some action. If not, at least I've registered despair.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

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.