The Boston Globe
Saturday, January 15, 2000
Battle lines drawn in tax war of 2000
By Brian C. Mooney
The Great Tax Cut War of 2000 officially began yesterday. Lexington and Concord it
wasn't, but the formal creation of a committee to oppose Governor Paul Cellucci's
tax-rollback petition guarantees a tumultuous fall campaign.
Led by teachers and the AFL-CIO, "The Campaign for Massachusetts' Future to
Defeat Multi-Billion Dollar Tax Cuts" filed organizational papers yesterday at the
state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
To Cellucci and his allies, this is a fight to fulfill the promise, at least
implied during the 1989-90 fiscal crisis, to return the income tax rate, now 5.85 percent,
to 5 percent.
To opponents, including many local officials, it's mindless politics. Since 1990,
36 other tax cuts, now totaling more than $3 billion a year, have gone into effect.
Cellucci's initiative, even phased in over three years, will inevitably harm schools,
human services, and other important programs, they say.
It's become a rite: At the start of each decade, Massachusetts has a bloodletting
over tax cut questions. How much will you pay for your government? In 1980, Proposition
2½ passed. In 1990, Question 3, a massive tax and fee rollback, was defeated. In 2000,
voters have a full menu -- besides Cellucci's $1.1 billion rollback, a $700 million offset
for road tolls and auto excise taxes, and a question to make charitable giving deductible
for state income tax purposes, a $200 million item.
Comparison will be made to '90 and Question 3, ("It goes too far" was
the opponents' winning slogan). Similarities surely abound, but this campaign may be
decided by the differences.
Foremost is the role of Cellucci, who has virtually staked his governorship on
this issue. The risks or rewards will be enormous. A better campaigner than chief
executive, Cellucci can at least partly redeem a lackluster 2½ years in the governor's
chair with a big win in November. In 1990, Question 3 backers, led by Citizens for Limited Taxation and Barbara Anderson, were much less organized than
this year's tax-cut activists.
Moreover, Cellucci's fund-raising machine has led efforts to raise about $200,000
so far and hopes to raise at least $2 million more, said Rob Gray, Cellucci's top
"It'll be a fair fight this year," said Gray.
In 1990, opponents of a $1.2 billion tax cut outspent Anderson's Question 3 forces
about $3 million to $1 million. The Massachusetts Teachers Association alone spent
$1.4 million to defeat the question. The 88,000-member union will be a factor
again this year though some members are tired of being the open checkbook in every
campaign against tax cuts.
The governor, meanwhile, has all the toys of incumbency, including the big soap
box Thursday night -- his State of the State address -- to campaign for the tax cut.
A tricky variable from the '90 ballot campaign is a problem for Cellucci, however.
As he pushes his own initiative, he's mum on the others. "We're keeping our powder
dry on all the other ballot questions," said Gray.
Opponents aren't. To them, a two-fer is a bigger target.
"We're going to focus both on the governor's rollback and the 'Free the
'Pike' question," said James St. George, executive director of the Tax Equity
Alliance for Massachusetts. It is neutral on the charitable deductions tax cut.
The toll-excise question is an ingenious political creation -- a son of
toll-repealing "Free the 'Pike," which was knocked off the ballot two years ago
because it jeopardized bonds vital to funding the Big Dig. Proponents seek instead a
straight tax credit for tolls and have tossed in the same for auto excise taxes, perhaps
the most hated of all Massachusetts taxes. Its impact would be enormous, though, $700
million a year.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, nonpartisan and fiscally sober, opposes
the toll-excise question and only backs further cuts in the tax rate if tied to economic
"We see a difficult time ahead even without the ballot questions," said
Michael Widmer, foundation president. Tax cuts already enacted since 1998 (including a
phased-in reduction to 5.75 percent on the income tax rate) will cost $1.66 billion, fully
implemented. The Cellucci and turnpike questions would lop another $1.7 billion from state
revenues. Meanwhile, spending is way up -- well over 6 percent annually the past two years
-- and the 1980s "budget busters" of Medicaid, state employee health insurance,
and pension costs are growing again, said Widmer.
Even as the state logs mid-year revenues indicating a likely surplus of several
hundred million dollars by June, those are "pincers," Widmer said, on a budget
now at $20.8 billion.
The Great Tax Cut War of 2000 is under way. How much will you pay for your