CLT Update
Monday, December 11, 2000

The Boston Globe
Monday, December 11, 2000

Against the tax cut? Give it back
By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist

I WAS an avid supporter of Question 4, the ballot question rolling back the Massachusetts income tax rate to 5 percent. I was thrilled when it won in a landslide. At the same time, I know how galling that outcome must have been to Question 4's opponents, and I can sympathize. As a conservative in Massachusetts, after all, I am only too familiar with frustrating election returns.

Once your side has lost at the polls, there is usually nothing to do except swallow your disappointment and hope for fairer winds next time. But those who opposed the Question 4 tax cut are more fortunate than most, because this time there is something to soften the blow.

Income tax returns in Massachusetts, as in other states, include optional check-offs for taxpayers who wish to contribute to a worthy cause -- organ transplants, for example, or endangered wildlife conservation. Though the individual donations are modest, they can add up. In 1998, for example, 31,043 taxpayers contributed to the wildlife fund, raising a total of $225,245.

Now come Chip Ford and Barbara Anderson, the Citizens for Limited Taxation crusaders who, with Governor Paul Cellucci, put Question 4 on the ballot, with an idea for a new check-off.

Under the CLT plan, taxpayers who think the tax rollback is a mistake would be able to decline it. No extra paperwork would be required. They would simply calculate their tax under the old rate -- a table would be included in the instruction booklet sent by the Department of Revenue -- and donate what would have been their tax cut to the treasury. The average contribution might be small -- critics of Question 4 liked to note during the campaign that the typical tax cut would only amount to "a pizza a week" -- but in the aggregate they would make quite a nice windfall for the Commonwealth.

The CLT proposal has been introduced as a bill by Senators Jo Anne Sprague of Walpole and Robert Hedlund of Weymouth. If it passes, says Ford, "everyone will be a winner -- not only the voters who wanted tax relief, but also our opponents who kept saying that the state needed the money more than they needed their extra slice of pizza."

It isn't often that people who lose an election get the chance to show that their campaign rhetoric was sincere. But this is just such an opportunity for the enemies of Question 4, who warned in dire terms that cutting taxes would spell disaster:

  • "The massive tax cuts proposed for the November ballot will result in crippling cuts to education, health care, public safety, local aid, bridges and road repair" -- Robert Haynes, president, Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

  • "Massachusetts needs to invest in education, health care, and our infrastructure.... We cannot make those investments while financing the Big Dig and paying for this risky tax cut" -- James St. George, executive director, Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts.

  • Tax cuts "may be tempting at first glance but they camouflage a potential budget disaster.... Opposition to these questions equals support for investments in education and health care" -- US Representative Joe Moakley.

  • "Providing ... a first-class public education costs money -- and we won't have the money ... if the Cellucci/Swift tax cut is approved. It would be a bleak day for the children of Massachusetts if the governor's income tax cut and the [turnpike toll rebate] were to pass.... This year, the most important lesson we have to teach is a moral one: For the sake of our children, for the sake of our schools, stop the tax cut!" -- Stephen Gorrie, president, Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Did those who denounced Question 4 so heatedly really mean the things they said? When they claimed "they'd rather spend the surplus on reducing class size, fixing school buildings, and expanding access to health care" (St. George), were they telling the truth? If so, they should embrace CLT's check-off and urge their followers to donate the tax cut back to the state. The big-government liberals at TEAM and the MTA ought to leap at this chance to put their money where their mouths were. If they did, anti-tax conservatives like me would stand and cheer, applauding their integrity and intellectual consistency.

Alas, they'd rather have the money.

"We weren't arguing that we wanted to pay more in taxes," says TEAM's St. George. "We wanted the state to have the funding necessary to provide a certain level of services."

But isn't it hypocritical to condemn the tax cut as selfish -- and then pocket it anyway?

"We play by the rules as they exist, not as they would be if we were benevolent dictators."

How about the teachers union? Surely -- for the children's sake -- the MTA would encourage citizens to let the state keep the money. Right?

Wrong. "That's not how a democratic society works," Jo Blum, the union's director of governmental services, tells me. "We don't use check-offs to pay for schools, bridges, health care."

What a pity. The enemies of Question 4 always said they would rather forgo a tax cut so that the state could have more money. CLT's check-off would make it easy for them to live up to their word. Who would have guessed that living up to their word was never really their priority?

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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