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
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
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