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
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
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
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."