SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 23, 2012

Barbara Anderson: Beware Beacon Hill's charge of tax-and-spenders' brigade

Barbara Anderson

To paraphrase Alfred, Lord Tennyson: In the spring, Beacon Hill's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of taxes. So remember his other words, "I must lose myself in action, lest I wither in despair."

The action is simple: Let legislators know that, come fall, we'll vote against anyone who increases the Massachusetts tax burden, which is already fourth-highest per capita in the nation.

I appreciate that Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo has said there will be no new taxes this year and has stated his opposition to Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal to tax candy and soda. The speaker has earned some credibility from Massachusetts citizens because of his support for public employee health care and pension reforms. I think he is sincere in his "no new taxes" message.

But as Lord Tennyson observed, "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." I have seen this movie before.

It was the spring of 1989. Gov. Michael Dukakis had returned from his own presidential campaign to insist on a billion dollars in new taxes. The Senate waited to see what the House would do.

House Speaker George Keverian backed his Ways & Means chairman, Richard Voke, D-Chelsea, when he said there would be no new taxes. I admired Keverian and believed Voke; I still think they were sincere.

But come summer, Dukakis was joined in his demand for "new revenues" by the Senate leadership, and the House caved. As a result, we got the largest tax increase in Massachusetts history, including a "temporary" income-tax rate hike that we'd still be paying except that voters expressed their preference for the old 5 percent rate on the 2000 ballot.

Unfortunately, the Legislature froze part of that voter mandate in 2002, so we're still paying some of that "temporary" 1989 tax hike. Earlier this year, Beacon Hill allowed a 0.005 percent reduction in the income tax rate to 5.25 percent.

This was a teeny-tiny good sign, considering that "The Campaign for Our Communities" has been running all over the state pitching an increase in the rate to 5.95 percent again. Last weekend, the union-run "Campaign" was in western Massachusetts, where it got a unanimous resolution from the Springfield City Council urging the governor and Legislature "to invest in our communities, to strengthen our economy, and to improve the quality of life of Massachusetts residents by passing legislation, such as the Act to Invest in Our Communities, that raises substantial new revenue by increasing taxes on upper-income filers while decreasing taxes on lower-income filers."

An Act to Invest in Our Communities, presently before the Legislature, would increase the income tax rate to 5.95 percent and the rate on investment income to 8.95 percent, except for certain seniors. It also would raise the personal exemption to make up for the rate increase, though only partly, because otherwise they wouldn't get all those "quality of life-improving" revenues.

Yep, same movie. Liberal activists go from city to town, ginning up support for their tax-hike agenda. Various connected spending groups announce their support, one by one, building what appears to be a broad-based grass-roots demand for more taxes.

Then, on the first day of spring, the legislative committee called "The Tax Expenditure Commission" leaks its report, floating its support for removing tax breaks from the Massachusetts tax code. No specific recommendation, yet, just the list of what Beacon Hill calls "tax expenditures," i.e., all the money earned in the private sector that the state doesn't already take.

The discussion focuses on the obviously silly tax breaks, obtained by lobbyists over the years, like the exemption from the sales tax for airplane parts, while we pay the sales tax for automobile parts. By all means, clear up and simplify the tax code.

But these silly items are not where the money is. The money is in the major "tax expenditures" that exempt food, home sales and most services from the sales tax.

In 1989, the "no new taxes" House went along with the Dukakis/Senate sales tax on services, which we were told was just on services for the rich like architects and lawyers. Actually, it taxed lawn-mowing, haircuts, every service in the state.

When a 1990 ballot question attempted to repeal the new taxes, the Legislature increased the personal exemption to show good faith. The ballot question failed, and the personal exemption was soon reduced again. Gov. Bill Weld did manage to repeal the tax on services, which is now on the table again, with the tax on sweets and the income tax/investment tax hikes.

There is also a bill to create local option income taxes in return for a reduction in the property tax — the sequel to the movie, "Vote for Deval Patrick to reduce your property taxes."

To once again paraphrase Lord Tennyson: "Ours not to reason why, ours but to just pay more." I think not.

Try this Tennyson quote: Ours "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." It's the season to strive for better government, to seek respect for the taxpayers, to find budget reforms and savings, and never to yield to those who keep demanding we star in their ongoing wasteful-government drama.

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Barbara Anderson, a Marblehead resident and executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, is a regular contributor to the opinion pages.