A Ballot Committee of Citizens for Limited Taxation


The Boston Globe
Wednesday, November 8, 2000


Cellucci gets a win, may stay to enjoy it
By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Columnist

Governor Paul Cellucci's name wasn't on the ballot, but he was potentially a big winner yesterday. Exit polls showed Question 4, his income tax rollback petition, likely to pass. That would jolt Massachusetts' political terrain.

In that case, Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham could be a loser. Not only was he one of the most visible opponents of Question 4, but his Democratic Senate refused this year to go along with a House plan to cut the income tax rate from 5.85 percent to 5 percent, triggered by growth in the state's economy. That would have taken the steam out of the Cellucci ballot initiative, achieving the same goal, but in a more sensible manner with failsafes.

Instead, Cellucci's $1 billion cut would come in three automatic annual bites, regardless of the economic climate.

Birmingham, an undeclared candidate for governor in 2002, already has an astounding $2 million in his campaign account. He may have to spend some explaining his recalcitrance on the eminently reasonable phase-in, backed by the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

The foundation did not take a position on Question 4, but said in an analysis that if it passed and voters defeated Question 6, a proposition to rebate about $700 million a year in tolls and auto excise taxes, the state budget could absorb the cut with moderate future growth in revenues. However, approval of both would necessitate deep program cuts, the taxpayers group said. Cellucci and the foundation opposed Question 6.

For Cellucci, a win yesterday would help his image.

His tax-cut forces were outspent about 3-1 by a coalition of labor unions, liberals, and Democratic political leaders. Unions, led by teachers, bankrolled about 90 percent of the campaign to kill the rollback. They tried to make the rollback a referendum on the guv, who has had a term's worth of bad press in the past year alone. In this long-running blood feud, Cellucci thumped organized labor in his 1998 campaign, when they threw everything at him. He was poised to do it again yesterday.

The guv's poll numbers have been dreary lately, and those of his lieutenant governor, Jane Swift, even worse. But they belie the fact that Cellucci, despite a heavy out-of-state schedule stumping for George W. Bush's presidential campaign, has picked up his game in recent months on Beacon Hill. He's been much more engaged and combative.

With Question 4, a potential stature-builder, it could also modify the political equilibrium on Beacon Hill, where Cellucci often seems the junior partner in a ruling triumvirate with Birmingham and Democratic House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran.

When he launched the tax-cut drive, Cellucci declared that he was going over the heads of the Legislature, directly to the voters. Democrats in the Legislature outnumber Republicans by about 5-1 -- and yesterday's election won't change that -- leaving Cellucci at the mercy of the majority in budget fights. However, his win at the ballot box yesterday could strengthen his hand somewhat in dealing with the Legislature.

He can't do much worse. In three-plus years, Cellucci has vetoed $526 million in spending initiatives. The Democrats have restored $342 million, 65 percent. In most cases where the Democrats let his vetoes stand, it was because the session expired, not because Cellucci mustered the votes to thwart them.

Moreover, despite the chatter about Cellucci's willingness to leave the governor's office for a federal post in a Bush administration, two sources close to Cellucci said yesterday they doubt he's eager to leave. He loves his job and all that comes with it, they said.

At deadline, the presidential race was still in doubt, but if Bush won and offered a job to Cellucci, there would be personal and political considerations, but also financial reasons for him to stay put. Dating back to his years as a Hudson selectman, Cellucci now has nearly 30 years of public service toward a pension. At age 52, he is now working on his "three best years," the salary average upon which his pension will be based. This year, his salary was increased 50 percent, to $135,000 a year. If he serves out the remaining two years of his term, it will mean a lot in his retirement.

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