The return of senatorial arrogance
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, May 28, 2015


Some readers, as well as some members of the Massachusetts Senate, weren’t around the State House a quarter century ago when the income tax rate was “temporarily” raised above its traditional 5 percent. I was there, strenuously objecting, and fortunately, taking notes.

Gov. Michael Dukakis had just returned from his unsuccessful run for president, during which he bragged about “the Massachusetts Miracle” with its “11 balanced budgets in a row.” Once his campaign was over and he returned to his day job, the Miracle had turned into “the Massachusetts Mess” with a huge budget deficit.

Angry Democratic legislators, feeling betrayed by the false revenue numbers they’d been given during the campaign, joined Republicans in resisting the tax increase Dukakis wanted. Finally, the Democrats agreed to “temporarily” raise the income tax rate for 18 months, to buy time to address budget savings.

The next year they gave up and hiked the income tax rate again, from 5.75 percent to 6.25 percent. First chance they got, angry voters elected a Republican governor, Bill Weld. Because he had taken the “no new taxes” pledge, Weld demanded and got enough reforms to finally balance the state budget, and managed to get the rate down to 5.95 percent before leaving the Statehouse.

His lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci, joined Citizens for Limited Taxation in a petition drive to restore the 5 percent rate. In an attempt to waylay this reduction, Democratic Senate President Tom Birmingham increased the state income tax personal exemption, from $2,200 to $4,400, with talk of indexing it to inflation so it would rise every year.



The author, second from right, looks on as then-Gov. Paul Cellucci signs her tax-cut petition in this September 1999 Salem News file photo.

Nevertheless, in November 2000, voters passed the income tax rollback, 59 percent to 41 percent, and the income tax rate dropped to 5.3 percent before the Legislature froze it in 2002, as well as cutting the personal exemption back to $3,300. Lesson here: You just can’t trust these people.

Trying to appear as if they still cared about what voters had ordered, the Legislature created a formula to slowwwwly lower the rate and increase the exemption again: the former is presently 5.15 percent and the latter has returned to $4,400 but never increased for inflation.

The Massachusetts House has stayed this course, but the Senate voted last week to end the rollback completely, keeping the income tax rate at 5.15 percent permanently, using the savings to increase the misnamed Earned Income Tax Credit, and trying the “increase the personal exemption” scam again.

Interesting side item: one of the senators who argued for this tax hike was Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who in 2009 was caught by an alert citizen with a camera buying liquor in tax-free New Hampshire after voting for an increase in the Massachusetts alcohol tax.

Last week he was quoted by the State House News Service: “The voters did choose to reduce their personal income tax liability, but they were given no choice on the method. We are providing the same amount of tax relief to the voters of the commonwealth by a different method. It’s not a matter of if we provide that tax relief, but how we provide that tax relief,” Rodrigues said.

Cute, senator. The voters chose to “keep the promise” (the official name of the ballot campaign) that the income tax rate would return to 5 percent. You want to substitute a permanent hike in the rate for all hard-working taxpayers, reduction for only lower-income workers, another temporary hike in the personal exemption. Why don’t you put it on the ballot and see if voters like it better?

Let’s keep this simple. The income tax rate reduction to 5 percent is a quarter-century overdue; I prefer the bill by state Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica, to finish this reduction on July 1, 2015. Also, the personal exemption should be increased by the rate of inflation.

The Earned Income Tax Credit was proposed in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget as a trade-off with repeal of the film tax credit; a challenge to legislators to show concern for the poor by foregoing their chance to hobnob with movie stars. I cringed at the cuteness of this deal, which the Senate has thrown back in the governor’s face by keeping the hobnob and letting him care for the poor by breaking his promise not to raise taxes.

If everyone wants to increase the EITC, fine; this has nothing to do with the income tax rate that voters ordered reduced in 2000. Find the money somewhere else, like the millions paid in “questionable benefits” to welfare recipients, according to a scathing 2014 audit from state Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office.

Making this all even more interesting, the House has challenged the Senate for passing a tax increase by itself. Our state founding fathers set it up so that tax hikes must originate in “the people’s branch,” not with what were perceived at the time to be arrogant Senate aristocrats who didn’t care about middle-class working people. Since little has changed in that regard, the House has asked the state Supreme Judicial Court to disallow the Senate tax increase.

Now toss in the statement by liberal Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, who said during debate that the change would help address income inequality by giving more money to lower-income workers rather than giving some to wealthier taxpayers who pay the most in taxes, thereby opening the Senate to the charge that it’s trying to create an unconstitutional graduated income tax.

Unconstitutionality, broken promises, disrespect for voters: lookin’ senatorially arrogant, local senators Lovely and McGee.

Barbara Anderson of Marblehead is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem News columnist.

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.

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Citizens for Limited Taxation    PO Box 1147    Marblehead, MA 01945    508-915-3665