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CLT Update
Monday, February 1, 1999

The (Lawrence) Eagle-Tribune
Monday, February 1, 1999

Money to Burn, None to Return


Once again Massachusetts is wallowing in excess tax money. Once again the state wants to spend it instead of giving it back by repealing a 10-year-old "temporary" tax hike.


On Beacon Hill, the only temporary thing appears to be a promise.

Massachusetts' "temporary" state income tax increase turns 10 this year.

Happy birthday, everyone.

When they increased the tax rate in 1989, the governor and the Legislature said: Times are bad, we need the money.

Times have been good now for several years -- so good the state is again poised to collect another huge tax surplus.

In reality, a surplus is an overcharge. It is the difference between what state services cost and what state taxpayers are charged for those services.

The state could return the overcharge by finally keeping its 10-year-old promise to eliminate the "temporary" tax hike -- a change that could return $600 to the typical taxpaying family.

But unless the people start screaming -- and they should -- it is not going to happen.

Gov. A. Paul Cellucci is calling for an income tax cut. But he is also inviting legislators to spend the money by calling for the state's first-ever $20 billion budget.

Legislative leaders are in no rush to keep the promise.

In fact, Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham had the insolence to deny the tax hike was ever meant to be temporary. "No such promise was made. ... No such representation was made," he said last week.

It all depends what you mean by the word "promise."

Throughout the bitter debate that gave it birth 10 years ago, the tax hike was advertised as temporary -- the bill specifically said it would die after 18 months.

But it lived, because legislators voted to keep it alive. In fact, they voted to raise the rate still higher. Times were still bad, they said.

The state income tax rate now stands at 5.95 percent. The long-lost "permanent" tax rate was 5 percent.

Legislators reluctant to part with all the extra money they've taken from taxpayers during the good years have a novel excuse for not giving it back: The bad times may yet return.

The last time the state passed a "temporary" increase -- Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' 1975 surcharge -- it lasted 11 years.

Gov. Cellucci, Sen. Birmingham and the rest seem hellbent on breaking the record.

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