Revisiting the tax revolt, and a first brush with the Fourth Estate
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, December 10, 2015


Reading last week’s Salem News editorial about the Massachusetts property tax burden, and recent articles about the latest taxes in area communities, I thought it might be time to remind readers about Proposition 2˝, the ballot question passed by voters in 1980 to limit property taxes.

The editorial rightfully states that taxpayers can only get local spending under control by supporting candidates for local government who share that desire. It is good to be mindful, however, that the property tax is limited by Proposition 2˝ regardless of spending levels, so overspending means debt and unfunded pension and health insurance liabilities, as well as possibly poor priorities.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) has just released its 45th annual municipal finance report, telling us that in fiscal year 2015, local revenue grew 3.8 percent. This includes local aid from the state, fees, and the auto excise tax (which is also limited by Proposition 2˝), but the main source of municipal revenue, the property tax, which rose 4.1 percent, the largest annual increase since 2010.

I know that 4.1 percent is bigger than 2˝ percent; taxpayers often ask me how this is possible, and how their own property taxes can increase by more than 2˝ percent a year. The levy limit applies to the community as a whole, and allows a factor for new growth; and Prop 2˝ allows local voters to pass an override if they are willing to pay more for the local budget or bonded projects. Some communities have adopted the Community Preservation Act, which increases the property tax beyond the basic limit.

The taxes can also reflect some communities’ decision to tax business property at a higher rate than residential; most of the cities do, and each year there is negotiation over the percentages of the total property tax shifted to business.

It’s also important to know that increased assessments don’t increase the allowed levy; your assessment will decide how much of the allowed taxes you will pay, but your community doesn’t get any more spending money by raising property values. Still, if you feel that your assessment is too high, you can appeal it to your local assessors.

Compared to the unlimited, uncontrolled property tax hikes of the 1970s, Massachusetts taxpayers have lower taxes and more control. In our commonwealth as a whole, the overall property tax burden has dropped from one of its usual three highest in the nation; it’s no longer even in the top 10. The Washington-based Tax Foundation lists it at 18th in “property taxes paid as a percentage of median home value for owner-occupied homes.” Prop 2˝ should continue to protect us from the overspending and unfunded liabilities noted by the Salem News’ editorial on the MTF report.

Chip and I went to see the film “Spotlight,” about the Globe’s expose earlier this century of the priest abuse scandal. The lead reporter for the Spotlight team, Walter Robinson (Robby), played by Michael Keaton in the movie, was the reporter assigned to our property tax limit campaign in 1980, and I wanted to indulge in some nostalgia about that early period in my political life.

When Citizens for Limited collected signatures for the property tax initiative petition, I was the secretary in the office; the one who typed it. I was not involved in board discussions about the many complicated provisions; and yet, when my boss quit in July, after the petition was filed to go to the ballot, I became executive director of CLT. My job was to sell it for a yes vote on the November ballot.

I was happy to do this: I’m a strong believer in simplification, so I just told everyone, “We all know property taxes are too high, and this will fix them.” This, however, was not enough for the media that was beginning to cover the story. It certainly was not enough for Walter Robinson, Globe State House bureau chief.

I was terrified that, when interviewing me, he would find out that I didn’t know what all the legal language in the bill meant; we owed the lawyer who drafted it money, so I had to wing it. Yes, Walter looked just as he’s portrayed in the film by Keaton, determined to get the truth out. I always tell the truth; the problem was, I wasn’t sure I knew it all that well. I am pretty sure Walter picked up on this. But I think he also sensed I wouldn’t try to mislead him. He wasn’t after the secretary turned political activist, he wanted to tell his readers what this proposed initiative law said.

So he and his sidekick Larry Collins did their own research, in the kind of depth that newspapers don’t have the time or space for today; each day brought analysis of another section of the bill. I’d get the paper off my front porch in the morning, memorize what they wrote on the MBTA ride in to work, and confidently use it with the next reporter who called. By the time the campaign heated up, I knew what I needed to know, and with other taxpayer activists, went forth to debate the public employee unions, League of Women Voters, municipal officials, etc. On Nov. 4, we won.


The next day, when being interviewed again by Robinson, I asked him: Do you think I’ll be able to stay in charge of this issue, or will someone take it away from me and CLT? He laughed that brief laugh of his and assured me the media would always see me as the leader of the tax revolt. I realized then that he had always known what an amateur I was, but as a reporter thought this made for an interesting human-interest aside, probably better than working with a wealthy octogenarian like Howard Jarvis, who started the property tax revolt in California.

For my part, I knew that if I ever actually screwed up, he as a journalist would tell the world; and knowing this, I have trusted him as the person for whom the word “journalist” was created. Though I think “Spotlight” as a film did some improper composition for dramatic effect, nevertheless it showed why newspapers are our first line of defense against those who would break the law, hurt children, and then try to cover it up.

Walter and his team, with their expose, saved many more children from molestation.

Barbara Anderson of Marblehead is a weekly columnist for the Salem News and Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company.

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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