Massachusetts was home of the Boston Tea Party, but in recent years the commonwealth’s voters have tended to docilely accept whatever level of taxation the robber barons on Beacon Hill deem appropriate. When the tax issue is put directly on the ballot, however, Bostonians momentarily regain their tax-resisting, tea-dumping spirit.
In 1980, the same year Massachusetts voted for Ronald Reagan, Bay State voters approved Proposition 2 1/2. Following on the heels of the tax revolt Howard Jarvis started with Proposition 13, this measure subjected municipal property-tax increases to a 2.5 percent annual limit. Neither can property taxes exceed 2.5 percent of the assessed value of all taxable property. Twelve years later, as Massachusetts was re-electing the Republican governor who rang down the curtain on the Dukakis era, the voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have created a graduated state income tax. In 2000, they voted to roll the state’s income tax rate back to 5 percent, from which it had been “temporarily” raised in 1989.
Now the commonwealth’s beleaguered taxpayers are trying repeat these past successes with another ballot initiative to roll back the state income tax — to a new flat rate of zero. The Committee for Small Government is leading the charge for Question 1, a referendum that would abolish the 5.3 percent Massachusetts income tax entirely, along with a state capital gains tax that peaks at 12 percent.
Can Ron Paul’s preferred tax rate pass in a state that elects Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and an 88 percent Democratic legislature? An income-tax repeal initiative first made the Massachusetts ballot in 2002. The Boston Globe and Suffolk University both took polls shortly before the election that pegged its support at 34 percent. A Boston Herald poll put the figure at 25 percent. Political analyst Jim Braude predicted it would get less than 20 percent of the vote.
When the dust settled, Question 1 received 45.4 percent of the vote. The income-tax abolition initiative carried one-third of Massachusetts’ cities and towns despite little media coverage, a volunteer campaign, and less than $89,000 in pro-Question 1 advertising spending. This time around, polls are showing a dead heat, with the initiative trailing 46 percent to 45 percent — within the margin of error.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts the possibility we’re going to win this time,” says Carla Howell, chairman of the Committee for Small Government. Howell has run for three statewide offices as a Libertarian candidate, winning 12 percent of the vote in the 2000 Senate race and finishing just a point behind Ted Kennedy’s Republican challenger. But her main goal has been trying to shrink government by taking a major revenue source away from the state legislature.
“People are angry, the economy is shaky, and people are feeling financially insecure,” Howell says when asked how the Massachusetts political climate has changed since 2002. She might be right. The Big Dig and careening state budget have made Bay Staters more acutely aware of government waste. A statewide poll found that the average Massachusetts voter believed that 41 cents out of every state tax dollar is wasted — the exact percentage of the state budget funded by the income tax (although when off-budget spending is taken into account, income tax revenues are only 27 percent of state expenditures).
“Massachusetts is one giant perception that government is out of control — and it’s an accurate perception,” says Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government. “The Big Dig is a very visible example. Our per capita tax burden is one of the highest in the nation. So is our debt. So are our unfunded liabilities. Our public employee benefits.” Anderson, who has been a leading spokesman for lower taxes in Massachusetts since the Proposition 2 1/2 battle, supports repealing the income tax. “Question 1 must pass or it sends the message that taxpayers in Massachusetts will put up with anything,” she says. “We’ll be looking at a tax increase instead of a tax cut.”
Question 1 faces some very determined opponents: public employees unions, cities and towns who fear cuts in municipal aid, both the Democratic and Republican leaders in the legislature, and much of the media. The Boston Globe editorialized that “efforts to tamp down antitax sentiment in Massachusetts” should be helped by a new national study showing the commonwealth near the middle of the pack in terms of state tax bite. Though much of the credit should go to tax cuts and ballot initiatives the Globe usually opposed, the paper used the study to oppose another: “In November, voters will be faced with a ballot question to eliminate the state income tax. The tax foundation’s report shows Massachusetts moving in the right direction.”
From Howell’s perspective, that “antitax sentiment” is a sign things are moving in the right direction. Question 1 is enjoying more support from talk radio this time around. Massachusetts Republicans are less opposed. “About half the [GOP] state committee is with us,” Howell says. “The state party chairman is neutral.” She emphasizes the repeal would give the average Massachusetts worker a $3,600 annual tax cut while rolling the state budget back to its 1995 level. To put that in perspective, that’s the year Bill Weld began his second term as governor.
Even if Question 1 passes, its opponents won’t stop fighting. The state income tax rate still stands at 5.3 percent because the legislature refused to implement the last phase of the voter-approved rollback. Beacon Hill similarly ignored the voters on the Massachusetts Clean Elections law. “I’m sure they will try to do whatever they can get away with,” says Howell. “The question is what they can get away with.”
If the state that fired the shot heard round the world ends its income tax, it will have a lot of politicians around the country wondering what they can still get away with.
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