The Boston Herald
Sunday, April 1, 2001

Voluntary tax eases impact of tax-relief referendum
By Chip Ford

Voters decisively lightened their tax burden last November by rolling back the state income tax, but that isn't the final word on Beacon Hill. Some legislators and special interests are striving to replace that relief with new taxes. It doesn't have to be this way.

"I am frankly amazed that we haven't done this before. We have a revenue stream there if we want one," decreed state Sen. Marian Walsh, co-chairman of the Legislature's Taxation Committee. She is proposing a new five percent sales tax on beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages, which already carry an excise tax.

"Is that a reasonable place to look for revenues? It could be," suggested James St. George of the Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts, which recently advocated an increase in the state's 5 percent sales tax as well as corporate taxes. Along with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, TEAM was the lead opponent against the tax rollback.

"I don't know that there'd be necessarily any reluctance on the part of many of the senators to revisit that," said state Sen. Richard Moore, suggesting an end run around the ballot question overwhelmingly approved by voters. He added, "I think as people hear more about the economy, that the cries for it may get stronger."

St. George reportedly observed, "Last year, the public said, we're tired of that and we're not going to take that burden anymore. Now, the question is: Where do we shift that burden back onto?"

Taxpayers did not vote to shift their burden; they voted to lighten it.

There is a painless remedy to this ageless conflict.

Citizens for Limited Taxation has proposed a simple alternative to increasing the burden on unwilling taxpayers, while at the same time satisfying those who want to tax and spend more. It has a bill before the Legislature that seeks a voluntary tax check-off.

It's possible that both limited and bigger government taxpayers can be winners simultaneously.

The 59 percent of voters who approved Question 4 to cut their taxes can hang on to their tax relief, while the 1.05 million who voted against it and insist that the state needs more money -- needs it more than they and their families do -- would be able to provide it with ease.

Senate Bill 1734, sponsored by state Sen. Jo Ann Sprague (R-Walpole), would provide a voluntary tax check-off box on state income tax return forms.

The state Department of Revenue would add a table to its Schedules and Instructions booklet providing the difference between the decreasing tax rate under Question 4 and the old rate if the tax rollback had not passed. That difference is the voluntary tax.

Those who elect to pay the voluntary tax will be collectively recognized for their principled consistency and commitment to funding more state spending. A provision of the bill requires the DOR to document how much additional revenue is raised by the voluntary tax check-off, and how many taxpayers participate.

Question 4 is expected to reduce state tax collections by $1.2 billion when fully implemented in 2003. This anticipated reduction could be significantly dampened by potentially $400 million to $600 million annually if all those who opposed the rollback take advantage of the voluntary check-off. This simple check-off opportunity would generate much more revenue than any of the new tax proposals they support.

Last November, 41 percent of voters insisted that they didn't need or want tax relief. They shouldn't be forced to take it. What could be more fair and equitable in a democracy?

The voluntary tax check-off is a perfect resolution. It provides those defeated with a second chance to win with honor, if they choose to take it.

Chip Ford is director of operations of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

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