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Sales tax foes upbeat on prospects

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 8, 2010

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Antitax crusaders yesterday triumphantly turned in what they called a “challenge proof’’ number of voter signatures in their attempt to put on the November ballot a measure halving the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.

The push to lower the tax to 3 percent has been tried before, but supporters say the recession has created a newly favorable climate for passage.

Opponents warn the measure would cut state income by $2 billion or more, gutting budgets for police, teachers, and programs protecting the poor.

The sales tax question is one of three binding issues likely to make the November ballot. Measures repealing the sales tax on alcohol and eliminating an affordable housing law also have the required petition signatures, advocates say.

The deadline for submitting required voter signatures passed yesterday.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin expects to review the signatures over the next few days, according to his spokesman. A total of 11,099 certified signatures were required yesterday for a measure to get on the ballot, and the groups also had to present 66,593 signatures on Dec. 2 of last year.

A fourth group that had been gathering signatures, which opposes wood-burning power plants, said it had the signatures to put its issue on the ballot, but decided not to turn in the last batch yesterday, after a last-minute announcement from the Patrick administration that it would restrict incentives for wood-burning power.

The sales tax question has already reverberated in the governor’s race, and an energetic turnout on the issue could help Republican Charles D. Baker or independent Timothy P. Cahill. Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat who signed an increase in the sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent last year, has said he favors reducing taxes when the economy improves, but not immediately.

Both Baker and Cahill favor cutting the sales tax to 5 percent, although Baker has said he may not be able to do so early in his term. Neither candidate supports a 3 percent rate, but both said they would implement it if voters give the go-ahead.

Similar measures failed in 2002 and 2008. But a plurality of voters surveyed in May, 49 percent to 44 percent, said they supported cutting the sales tax to 3 percent, according to a Suffolk University/7 News poll.

“The mood is very different,’’ said Carla Howell, chairwoman of the Alliance to Roll Back Taxes, which has led the signature gathering. “A lot of people realize that this is the only opportunity to actually do something about it.’’

Howell said her group has not yet plotted its campaign strategy, but she said voters would recognize that lower taxes would encourage businesses to hire more employees.

But the election is months away, and opponents are certain to press the case that cuts in spending would devastate local and state governments’ ability to provide services and damage the larger economy. Only a week ago, Patrick signed a $27.6 billion budget that reduced spending on local aid, education, and services to the poor because the economic downturn has diminished state revenues.

Barry Bluestone, dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, said the tax question, along with the measure to eliminate the state’s affordable housing law, would devastate the economy if both passed.

“That combination is about the two worst things I can imagine us doing in terms of securing an economic future in the Commonwealth,’’ said Bluestone, who has joined a group opposing the affordable housing repeal.

Bluestone said dropping the affordable housing regulation would further price young people out of the housing market and continue the trend toward pushing them to live and work out of state. And he said that a lower sales tax — and the resulting loss of education, police, and general government services that aid businesses — would discourage companies from locating in Massachusetts.

The affordable housing law targeted for repeal on the ballot has been in place since 1969. It lets builders bypass some zoning restrictions in communities that lack significant affordable housing if they set aside 25 percent of their units for residents who earn less than 80 percent of the community’s median income.

John Belskis, 76, an Arlington retiree who is leading the repeal drive, said it has failed to significantly increase the number of affordable housing units in the state while allowing developers to reap profits by building more housing than local communities can support.

“It’s a club, and it lines the pockets of the developers and bankers,’’ he said.

On the alcohol ballot measure, representatives of package stores and beer and wine wholesalers who are supporting a repeal of that sales tax say that customers already pay state and federal excise taxes and that the addition of a sales tax is driving customers out of state. Before last year, alcohol was exempt from the state sales tax.

But proponents of maintaining the tax say that alcohol continues to sell well and that the money from the tax is set aside for substance abuse and prevention programs.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.