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Globe Editorial

This question is not the answer

September 28, 2008
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ECONOMIC ANXIETY caused by the crisis in the financial markets, and all its attendant uncertainty, could be enough to cause some voters to favor the question on November's ballot to eliminate the state income tax. But Question 1 will make things incalculably worse. The Globe urges every citizen, regardless of income, to Vote NO on Question 1.

The state treasurer already has said he will have to borrow at higher interest rates and tap rainy day funds in order to cover current local aid payments to the cities and towns. It's not hard to imagine how local communities would fare if the state were suddenly starved of 40 percent of its operating budget, which is what Question 1 would do. Local services from schools to police stations to senior centers would be on the chopping block. Property taxes - the most unfair and hated of all assessments - would likely rise to make up the difference. That explains why the Massachusetts Municipal Association, representing all 351 cities and towns, opposes Question 1.

Small businesses are the job generators in Massachusetts, and they are trying hard to provide decent wages and benefits to their employees. The state's landmark law to extend healthcare coverage to all residents through affordable personal plans would likely come to a screeching halt with a cut in revenue of $12 billion, which is what Question 1 would cost. Improvements to local roads, parking and streetlights, and crime reduction efforts all would suffer. That is why the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and other chambers from Springfield to Attleboro, representing thousands of small businesses, oppose Question 1.

The state's most valuable natural resource is its brainpower. Cutting $12 billion from the budget threatens teachers, after-school programs, MCAS remediation and summer school, special education classes, sports and arts programs, state college scholarships, workforce training and literacy classes. That is why the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents - labor and management alike - oppose Question 1.

Proponents of limited government envision a world where private institutions or charities would do the work of government. But a profit-seeking private sector can't or won't provide for many human needs, and charity cannot begin to make up the difference. The Catholic Charitable Bureau of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization oppose Question 1.

After steady work by fiscal conservatives in the Legislature, Massachusetts has shed its "Taxachusetts" epithet and now ranks 32nd for overall tax burden - that is, all taxes paid as a percentage of personal income. That is below the national average and well below competitor states such as New Jersey, California and Michigan. The mix of taxes is now fairly stable and in good balance, with the more progressive income tax taking up most of the burden. The business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the state's House and Senate Republican leaders oppose Question 1.

Small-government extremists who have mounted this question say the state is swimming in money. But the magnitude of this tax cut cannot be waved aside. Much of the state budget is dedicated to financial obligations like debt service and pensions. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that some $13 billion in state spending is non-discretionary: required by court order, the constitution, or federal law. The $12 billion cut would have to come out of what is left.

The state could stop spending every dime it now spends on local aid and every dime on human service programs - food banks, domestic violence and homeless shelters, care for autistic children, substance abuse and more - and still not have enough to make up for what is lost to Question 1. The state could fire all 67,000 state employees - every prison guard and college teacher - and still have to find another $7 billion.

Carla Howell, chairwoman of the committee sponsoring Question 1, says 41 cents of every tax dollar is wasted. How does she know that? It's what people estimated in a survey she took. "That's just the tip of the trash heap," she says. But one person's trash is another's crucial aid or life-giving opportunity. Question 1 doesn't identify which is which; it is a blunt budget ax.

Voters are understandably anxious about their futures, and angry at institutions that have allowed the economy to deteriorate. But eliminating the income tax is not the way to strike back at greedy Wall Street brokers, high gasoline prices, double-dipping public employees, or crashing home values. We hope voters will remember the slogan that helped defeat an earlier tax repeal effort - "I'm mad, but I'm not crazy" - and reject this reckless measure.

BALLOT QUESTION 1
For and against...

For and against...

The arguments for and against eliminating state income tax.
INTERACTIVE

Play the budget game

If Question 1 passes the governor and legislature will need to cut nearly 40% of the state's budget. How would you do it?
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