A Ballot Committee of Citizens for Limited Taxation


The Boston Globe
Saturday, October 14, 2000

Voters warming up to tax-cut question
By Tina Cassidy
Globe Staff

FRAMINGHAM -- It would return $1.2 billion to taxpayers, making it one of the largest tax reductions in state history.

But around Massachusetts, voters seem largely unaware of Question 4, an initiative on next month's ballot that would roll back the Massachusetts income tax rate from 5.85 to 5 percent.

They haven't heard about it. They can't quite figure out how much it would put in their pockets or take from the state budget. And they don't seem to care that Governor Paul Cellucci has staked his political future on getting the measure approved.

Those interviewed appear overwhelmingly willing to accept the money back despite not knowing, or caring to know, much about the measure's possible consequences.

"I think a lot of people are apathetic," Mark Myles, a 42-year-old hotel worker from Westborough, said on his way into Barnes & Noble in Framingham the other day.

It's enough to send the opposition into fits. The foes, from State Treasurer Shannon P. O'Brien to local mayors, believe the rollback is too costly, especially if the economy falters, and could impede advances in education, health care, and paying down debt.

"It's not a question of children dying in the streets," conceded Jack McCarthy, spokesman for the Campaign for Massachusetts' Future, the lead group fighting against the ballot initiative. "It's a question of a once in a lifetime opportunity to fix the problem we haven't totally fixed. We will never have a better time to reduce our debt, to improve education, and reduce class size. We'll never have a better time to improve health insurance and make sure prescription drugs are affordable for seniors."

On top of the income tax proposal, another initiative known as Question 6 would offer tax credits for tolls and motor vehicle excise taxes, a measure even the governor opposes because of its estimated $650 million expense.

If both Questions 4 and 6 pass, nearly $2 billion, or 10 percent, could be siphoned away from the state budget.

In fact, in an unguarded moment after taping a debate between the two for The Boston Globe/WBZ News Conference that will air tomorrow at 11 a.m. on Channel 4, O'Brien leaned toward Cellucci and said: "I would not want to be governor if both questions pass."

"It's going to be a bigger problem for the Legislature than it is for me," Cellucci said.

Yet regardless of the consequences, Cellucci is looking for a convincing Question 4 win to boost his favorability ratings and keep him in the game for a reelection campaign.

Several recent polls predicted overwhelming approval for the ballot initiative, which the governor says would deliver a $451 break, when fully phased in by 2003, to a family of four earning an income of about $75,000.

"With the governor engaged in bringing it home, it's going to be very tough to beat because it already starts with overwhelming support," said Lou DiNatale, director of a University of Massachusetts poll taken last month that found 74 percent in favor of the ballot question and 17 percent opposed.

The proposal would drop the tax rate to 5.6 percent next year, 5.3 in 2002, and 5 percent thereafter.

Last year, the Legislature agreed to reduce the income tax rate from 5.95 percent to 5.75 percent, phased in over two years. The rate is now at 5.85 percent and would drop next year to 5.75, but stay there, unless Question 4 is approved.

Cellucci's argument in favor of the cut is simple. He says the rate was raised during the late 1980s fiscal crisis, and was never intended to be permanent.

"It will keep the promise that it would be temporary," Cellucci said at the State House earlier this week as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the country's largest small-business advocacy group, endorsed the measure.

But there is more to it than that. According to the governor's aides, the state now ranks in the top 5 when it comes to overall taxpayer burden. Reducing the income tax rate, they say, will place Massachusetts below the top 10 and help erase its high tax stigma.

Between 1989 and 1991, the Legislature increased the income tax rate from 5 percent to 6.25 percent to raise revenues during the recession. Lawmakers said at the time the rate could be reduced when the financial crisis was over. In 1992, the rate dropped to 5.95 percent and remained there until last year.

However, during those intervening years, individual taxpayers have received breaks in other forms, the largest being the 1998 doubling of the personal exemption from $2,200 to $4,400, saving $131 for the average person. Other recent tax cuts range from halving the interest and dividend rate to raising the child care deduction.

The price tag for Question 4 is about $1.2 billion when fully phased in by 2003. That figure makes some wary, including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a national group that last year said Massachusetts was among only eight states that had sufficient reserves to weather a recession. But this year the group cautioned that a spate of tax cuts, especially if Question 4 passes, would leave insufficient revenues to maintain services in an economic downturn.

Despite that, just three months into the new fiscal year, state revenues are $360 million above estimates. Treasurer O'Brien, a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2002, believes the funds should go toward paying down Massachusetts' debt, which she said has skyrocketed 87 percent, from $6.6 billion in 990 to nearly $12.4 billion at the end of fiscal 2000.

"This year alone, the Commonwealth will likely issue some $3 billion in debt, about $500 for every man, woman and child in the state," O'Brien said in a letter to Cellucci last week.

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