CLT Update
Monday, August 6, 2001

Correcting Carla Howell

Last Friday, our friend Carla Howell issued "A message from Carla Howell." The e-mailed "Official Newsletter of Carla Howell's small government is beautiful (SM) campaign!" made some inaccurate and misleading charges. They concerned the effects of CLT's past efforts, as she promoted her initiative petition campaign to end the Massachusetts income tax.

CLT has been preserving and protecting Proposition 2 from all detractors since our success getting it on the ballot and approved by the voters over two decades ago. There's no reason to stop now, though I believe Carla -- or whoever wrote and/or edited her promotional message -- had no malicious intent, only a regrettable ignorance of the subject.

Inaccurate and misleading statements, even by friends, should not go unchallenged or uncorrected. We immediately asked for a correction. We have not yet received a response. I will respond here myself, set the record straight for any of you who also received her "newsletter" and found it confusing, and perhaps help to better inform her for the next time.

Carla Howell's message stated: "In Massachusetts, we passed Proposition 2 ... which limited property tax increases to 2 1/2% each year. And we celebrated."

CLT REALITY CHECK #1:  Actually, CLT's Proposition 2 cut property taxes in almost half of Massachusetts' communities by 15 percent a year until the rate reached 2.5 percent, and limited increases in the others and eventually all of them to 2.5 percent each year.

Carla's message went on: "Then state and local governments created loopholes. Exceptions. Unfunded mandates. Relentless referendums to override the laws."

CLT REALITY CHECK #2:  Local governments cannot create loopholes or exceptions to a state law. Prop 2 repealed two major unfunded mandates and forbids any new ones.

Prop 2 contained a provision for overrides. This is the only thing that has kept the Legislature from repealing or seriously modifying it, which of course the Legislature can do with any statute (including an income tax elimination initiative like Carla has proposed).

The state made some changes: for instance, the override no longer needs a 2/3 vote, just a majority. We preferred the 2/3, but the problem was that the Legislature only needed a majority to repeal the whole law (as they can with any law, including Carla's proposed initiative if it passes).

In return for the majority override, the state changes included a provision that a community can't even ask voters for an override if the tax rate is over 2.5 percent; we liked this because it protects the minority "No" voters from an extraordinary increase.

We also agreed to allowing an increase in the levy limit for "new growth," at the request of our Mass. High Tech Council allies, who feared that the housing market would crash and the economy be adversely affected. If the local levy couldn't increase for new growth, communities would discourage building since they couldn't get more revenue to cover the additional services new building would demand. (Looking back, this would have solved the later alleged "open space" problem, which never seems to be a concern during a recession.) We do think that the definitions of new growth are too loose and have filed legislation to tighten them up, but of course the Legislature refuses to do this.

One of the repealed mandates (binding arbitration for police and fire) was altered but not to the degree that the unions wanted. Some change seemed fair since these unions are not allowed to strike and our real goal, to prevent the teachers union from getting it, was accomplished.

Only one new mandate was passed "notwithstanding Prop 2," and that was the Education Reform Law, over our strenuous objection. However, it is an unfunded state mandate only in those communities that don't get as much in new local aid as they are required by the law to spend on education.

The real problem mandates are the old ones (pre-Prop 2), like Special Education, which wasn't on our radar screen in 1979 when Prop 2 was drafted.

Bottom line: there have been changes to Prop 2 that make it less restrictive, but the alternative in a Legislature that we do not control would have been repeal as soon as the public forgot how bad things were before it was adopted.

Carla further stated: "Politicians, bureaucrats, and judges gutted Proposition 13 and Proposition 2 1/2. Big Government kept growing. Tax limitation hasn't even slowed it down."

CLT REALITY CHECK #3:  There was only one court challenge to Prop 2, and we won. The judge said, in response to opponents' rhetoric, that whether Proposition 2 is foolish or far-reaching is no business of the court's and refused to alter it.

Big Government indeed kept growing, but property tax growth was certainly slowed down; that's easy to see if you just imagine if all the overrides that have failed, instead, had simply been imposed; not to mention the spending that wasn't done because officials didn't want to ask for an override.

Carla Howell stated: "Tax limitation never works. Tax limitation_guarantees_the growth of government. Massachusetts property taxes are guaranteed to grow 2 1/2% _every_year_. Unless, of course, the bureaucrats and politicians engineer an override. Then Big Government grows even Bigger."

CLT REALITY CHECK #4:  Tax limitation works to limit taxes. Period. Other initiatives are called other things. When we did Question 3 in 1990, it wasn't tax limitation, it was a tax cut. Or would have been if it had passed. Last year's Question 4, our income tax "rollback," cuts the rate but in fact still allows government to grow during its phase-down; that growth may stop if there is an economic downturn or a recession.

CLT REALITY CHECK #5:  Actually, government by definition grows and doesn't need a guarantee. Smaller government is a different argument altogether.

CLT REALITY CHECK #6:  No, communities do not have to use the allowed growth every year; usually they do, sometimes they don't.

CLT REALITY CHECK #7:  Actually, it's usually local citizens who put pressure on local politicians for an override. And local voters who approve it, when an override is approved.

CLT REALITY CHECK #8:  "Big Government grows even Bigger" because that's what voters decide they want, for some reason.

Carla wrote: "This happened in California and in every other state that passed tax limitation.... Despite the best intentions of those of us who worked so hard for Proposition 13 and Proposition 2 1/2."

CLT REALITY CHECK #9:  We did not repeal democracy, nor pass a provision protecting voters from themselves. If Libertarians can get a law passed that says "Stop us voters before we raise our own taxes or elect politicians who raise them, no matter what we want from government in a moment of tax-me weakness," then more power to them.

Carla wrote: "But when you pull up a weed by the roots, it can't grow back. When we end a tax, it doesn't grow back."

CLT REALITY CHECK #10:  Unless she instead proposes a constitutional amendment to repeal the state income tax and gets it through the Legislature twice -- instead of her initiative statute -- Carla cannot guarantee that. A win of at least 55 percent would make re-imposition by the Legislature politically risky, but certainly not impossible (ie., the "Clean Elections" Law, passed by voters with a 67 percent approval).

Perhaps, in Carla's words, "small government is beautiful" -- but accuracy is essential to credibility, and knowledge is the foundation of accuracy.

We want our Libertarian friends, as well as CLT activists, to know that their hard work on Proposition 2 and other tax limitation measures was not wasted. We know this because our opponents still whine about our successes constantly.

Perhaps "small government is beautiful," but limited government is a lot less ugly than the alternative we've fought hard against for 27 years.

And Carla, accuracy in criticism is beautiful too. Our successes are no threat to your proposed tax repeal, which is a whole new concept for voters to ponder. We wish you well in getting it on the ballot for their decision.

Chip Ford

Return to CLT Updates page

Return to CLT home page