A Ballot Committee of Citizens for Limited Taxation


The Boston Globe
Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Why I might vote for state tax rollback
By Joan Vennochi

Globe Columnist

Do you ever get the urge to do something really bad? The impulse sweeps over me frequently these days, and when it comes to one specific area, it gets harder to resist.

I am incredibly tempted to vote in favor of Question 4, the ballot question that would roll back the state income tax from 5.85 percent to 5 percent.

A large part of the temptation comes from a desire to hold public officials to their word, no matter what their party affiliation. In that regard, the temptation isn't about affordability or economic philosophy, it's about honesty and promise-keeping.

During the 1989-90 recession and fiscal crisis, the Democrats who controlled the House, Senate, and governor's office signed onto big income tax increases they described as temporary. According to press accounts at the time, their intent was absolutely clear. But now, a decade later, whether the "temporary" description amounted to an outright pledge -- or, at the very least, a solemn implication -- is a matter of some dispute and much uncomfortable word-parsing.

For example, asked whether he believed the income tax hike was temporary when he signed it into law in July 1989, former Governor Michael S. Dukakis gives this answer:

"That's true. The deal was yeah, there was a strong feeling, I certainly had the strong feeling, that as we came out of recession, that this was a good candidate for a reduction. But that wasn't along with $3 billion in tax cuts that have gone largely for the wealthy and none to average folks. There would be more than enough to reduce it if we hadn't had to give tax breaks to Raytheon and Fidelity."

As Dukakis sees it, the deal for a temporary income tax increase would still stand "if we had a governor who said from the outset, `If there are tax cuts, the tax cuts are going to benefit the vast majority of working folks. We're not going to dole out $3 billion in tax cuts to folks who have plenty and don't need them."

William F. Weld and Paul Cellucci, the two governors who followed Dukakis, obviously have a different party affiliation and a different philosophy when it comes to tax cuts. But their conservative economic theory doesn't tempt me. No, the Republicans in the executive branch are not pushing me in the direction of supporting Question 4. The Democrats who control the House and Senate are.

As a legislator, Thomas M. Finneran was part of the Democratic regime that sold the income tax increase as a necessary, but temporary, evil. Now, citing state spending needs, Finneran, the current speaker of the House, opposes the tax rollback, as does Senate President Thomas M. Birmingham.

Here's my problem with their position. I don't like their priorities or their way of doing business. I don't like how they are spending my money. I don't like their arrogance when it comes to pushing through supplementary budget items that amount to special-interest legislation -- their own -- without debate. I don't like the hypocrisy of saying there isn't enough money for housing, social workers, or special education, but there is enough money for a new ballpark for the Boston Red Sox.

Their way of spending money, unfortunately, reminds me too much of my own. I have a tendency to spend too much on frivolous items and then complain there isn't enough money for groceries and the mortgage. I need to spend money more wisely. And so do Finneran and Birmingham.

Nationally, the Republicans are trying to make this the year of the compassionate conservative. So far, the push for a major tax cut as part of that platform is not resonating that well on the campaign trail. American voters want a healthy surplus. They are also open to the idea of spending some of it wisely, on priorities like health care and education.

In Massachusetts, polls indicate that voters favor a tax rollback partly because of the promise they know politicians gave and partly because they are not convinced lawmakers will spend their money on things they care about.

Voters know that fiscal discipline means reassessing priorities and reallocating spending. It does not mean saying no to special needs students and yes to John Harrington.

One way of sending that message is to vote yes on Question 4. You get some money back and can spend it on causes you believe in, whether that means giving it to charity or putting it in a college savings fund. As an option, it is far more tempting than it should be. If I succumb, the devil won't make me do it. Tom Finneran and Tom Birmingham might.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist.

NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml