A Ballot Committee of Citizens for Limited Taxation


The Boston Globe
Wednesday, September 6, 2000


Tax-cut question real debate issue
By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Columnist

So, Boston's Oct. 3 presidential debate looks like a goner, thanks to George W. Bush. The Bay State political theater won't be dark this fall, however. Governor Paul Cellucci will debate Democrats on his ballot question to slash the state income tax.

Ultimately, these exchanges will have a much greater impact here than a high-gloss presidential confrontation, and with few contests on the state's November ballot, the tax rollback question will dominate the fall election debate.

An army of labor unions, human service providers, and elected Democrats is arrayed against Cellucci and his tax-cut allies at Citizens for Limited Taxation. They fear Cellucci's plan to lop the income tax rate from 5.85 percent to 5 percent will cripple state funding for important programs because it will cost an extra $1 billion a year when fully phased in over three years.

That's nearly a 5 percent cut in state revenue when the budget, now $21.5 billion, is up almost 7 percent in a year, and a $775 million surplus was all but wiped out to pay for Big Dig cost overruns and other transportation and capital costs.

Recent polls show the Guv has the upper hand by a wide margin in the battle over Question 4, but with nine weeks until the Nov. 7 election, Cellucci's Tax Rollback Committee has been outraised by the opponents, the Campaign for Massachusetts' Future. Reports are due to be filed by Friday.

The question's foes have raised about $480,000, mostly from labor unions, and have roughly $330,000 in the bank, according to James St. George, executive director of the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts, a leader of the coalition.

By contrast, the tax cut advocates will report raising "a little less" than St. George's group, a source close to Cellucci said, refusing to give details. Moreover, the group will report higher expenses to date, leaving less on hand for the stretch drive, the source said without specifying the gap.

In political terms, Cellucci could use a victory. Since winning the governorship outright in 1998, the Republican chief executive has been about as successful in the political arena as the '62 Mets were on the baseball field. At times, his administration has been comically inept, and Cellucci appears to have one foot out the door to a federal job many speculate he will be offered should Bush be elected president Nov. 7.

Between road trips on behalf of Bush, however, the Guv will debate some of the Democrats he challenged in July, all potential gubernatorial challengers in 2002.

A half-hour televised debate is tentatively set for Oct. 30 with Senate President Thomas Birmingham, and Cellucci aides are talking with Treasurer Shannon O'Brien and former party national committee chairman Steve Grossman and possible media sponsors for similar faceoffs. Secretary of State William F. Galvin and US Representative Martin Meehan of Lowell have also agreed to debate but say they have not heard back from Cellucci.

House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who opposes the petition and is not expected to run for governor, "is still considering the request and has not yet responded," an aide said yesterday. Former US representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, now in private business, has declined the offer.

In the battle of Web sites, Cellucci's team has the snazzier-looking page, "rollitback.com," which argues that a return to 5 percent will make the state more competitive in attracting jobs. It also notes that the rollback would fulfill a promise made during the huge "temporary" tax increases of the 1989-90 recession and fiscal crisis.

It would override the current law that will pare the rate to 5.8 percent in January and 5.75 percent in 2002.

But St. George's group has the more substantive site by far, packed with information, arguments, and the names of hundreds of groups and individuals opposing both Question 4 and Question 6, which would take an additional, immediate $700 million annual bite by rebating auto excise taxes and turnpike tolls. Cellucci, too, opposes Question 6.

The rollback opponents note that in the past decade, more than 30 tax cuts have been enacted, amounting to about $3 billion annually, and that, as a percentage of income, the Bay State is no longer "a high-tax" state.

To offset Cellucci's poll advantage, however, the opponents will have to outspend him in the campaign. Crucial to this is the 86,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, which 10 years ago kicked in $1.4 million to help defeat another rollback question. Thus far, the MTA has contributed $75,000.

"We'll do what we have to do to defeat these" questions, said MTA Vice President Cathy Boudreau, without predicting a total contribution. "They're too destructive."

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