"Since a politician never believes what
he says, he is surprised when others believe him."
-- Charles DeGaulle
Every parent's heard it --
"And, anyway, I never said I'd wash the dishes every night!"
-- or some such weak defense from the child whose allowance we raised
on the good-faith promise of extra work, but who now doesn't wish to
deliver. Memory grows dim -- and the pleas loud -- once the money's
been spent, but the best parents accept no excuses.
We shouldn't, as taxpayers, either.
Three recently filed Senate bills to reduce the state income tax from
5.95 percent to 5 percent -- either by 2000 or in a three-year
phase-in have produced enough crocodile tears pouring from the
State House down Beacon Street to return the Back Bay to a swamp.
Senate President Thomas Birmingham
cries that a tax cut would cause a dip in education, health care and
public safety money. Others wail that Gov. Paul Cellucci's militant
support for the rollback is "fiscally irresponsible" despite
the windfall tobacco settlement coming to Massachusetts, along with
this year's anticipated record budget surplus of $300 million to $600
million -- money that will more than cover anticipated outlays.
And now, the latest chutzpah: Though
the Legislature raised the income tax from 5 percent to 5.75 percent
in 1989 in order to plug a temporary budget deficit, which has long
since evaporated, politicians such as Rep. John Rogers, D-Norwood, are
claiming the "promise (to return the rate to 5 percent) never
existed." Oh. I must have imagined the following account of the
1989 tax hike published in The Boston Globe that summer: "The
Massachusetts House gave ... approval to a temporary 15 percent
increase in the state income tax ... for an 18-month period."
In fact, every major news source at
the time touted the tax increase as temporary, as voters like me who
were about 10 years old know. But truth can be stretched -- or dodged
-- in the politicians' elastic world. Pressed on the issue of the
Legislature's original intentions at the March 31 Taxation Committee
hearing on the tax reduction bills, Rep. John Slattery, D-Peabody,
punted: "Well, I didn't make that promise. We can't go back to
that promise because it's a whole different time."
How convenient that Slattery and so
many of our reps weren't around when earlier lawmakers floated those
bonds to cover the Dukakis budget shortfall with our bailout tax
money. Now those bonds are paid off and the fiscal crisis is over, but
the pols have bailed out, leaving their followers to collect the extra
tax revenue, but not the blame.
Well, most followers. One exception
is Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, co-sponsor and leading proponent
of the three rollback bills now being considered. He doesn't buy the
no-blame-game semantics of the anti-rollback faction. He says
lawmakers have a moral obligation to live up to the representations
made by their predecessors. "The Legislature may not be legally
bound by the promises of past Legislatures, but I do think we are
morally bound to acknowledge that this (tax hike of 1989) was of a
temporary nature," Hedlund told me recently.
He saved special outrage, however,
for Massachusetts' handling of the stabilization fund, the "rainy
day" money gleaned from tax revenue surpluses that are set aside
by the state for fiscal emergencies. Originally capped at $585 million
-- an amount believed sufficient to cover an economic downturn -- the
excess was to revert to the Taxpayer Reduction Fund and trigger a tax
break for you and me. But it never happened because lawmakers
"don't want to take taxpayer money out of the pipeline and send
it back to the people," said Hedlund.
Instead, he said, the Legislature,
"unconscionably and without economic justification" raised
the cap on the rainy day fund to $950 million in 1997, and again to
$1.4 billion in 1998, which eliminated automatic tax reductions of
$365 million and $475 million, respectively. "This was a
disgrace," Hedlund stated, noting that this year's doubling of
the personal tax exemption, which will return just $443 million to
taxpayers, will ironically bring less tax relief than if our lawmakers
had just honored the last cap on the rainy day fund.
Less tax relief and more mischief,
it seems. Thirty-two states set aside emergency funds, a few even
approaching $500 million, but Massachusetts maintains a $1.4 billion
Most states have "strict
guidelines about how stabilization funds are managed," Hedlund
said. Such safeguards typically include "demonstrating economic
need, or at least requiring lawmakers to obtain a two-thirds
majority" in order to spend or add money to rainy day funds. He
noted that Massachusetts holds no public hearings on such proposals,
requiring "only a simple appropriation" to tamper with this
enormous pool of money. "This makes (the rainy day account) a
slush fund for the legislative leadership."
That's why Hedlund's most sensible
proposal might be Senate bill 1526, which rightfully -- and by statute
-- limits the amount of the rainy day fund to 7.5 percent of all
revenue. For each year that cap is reached, taxes decline by about a
quarter percent, until we're back to a 5 percent income tax rate after
three years of defined state surplus.
It's also best in line with House
Speaker Thomas Finneran's recent public support for a possible
immediate reduction to 5.75 percent. "What the (legislative)
leadership wants, usually goes," Hedlund said.
Always? Or do the people have a say
in the matter of tax cuts? I asked. "Oh, they certainly do,"
Hedlund replied, "so if you want to be heard, call your
legislators" before the budget debates in June.