Remember Dukakinomics, that fool-proof method for turning an economic miracle into an economic basket case? It was the fiscal caning inflicted on Massachusetts in the 1980s by former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who is famed for the slogan "Competence, not ideology."
Dukakinomics, you may recall, was a five-step process:
Step 1 -- Government mismanages its affairs, wastes enormous amounts of money and spends itself into a crisis.
Step 2 -- To resolve crisis, officials raise taxes, claiming that spending and services have been cut to the limit of human tolerance.
Step 3 -- Incompetence and overspending continue; new fiscal crisis ensues.
Step 4 -- Officials demand another tax increase, warning of dire consequences if it is denied.
(Repeat Steps 3 and 4 until voters come to their senses.)
Step 5 -- Taxpayers revolt; officials are scorched by public anger and leave office.
Like Dukakis, and like me, Dukakinomics is alive and well and living in Brookline, where a Proposition 2-1/2 override is on the ballot today. Town fathers -- whoops, we're talking about Brookline, better make that town parents -- are seeking an extra $3 million increase in the town's permanent tax levy. The bizarre thing is, some residents actually plan to vote yes.
Not I. Call me quaint, but if the town with the highest taxes in Massachusetts is in fiscal trouble, something tells me that raising those taxes even higher probably isn't the right remedy. Should Brookline's malfeasing public servants ever get serious about cleaning up the mess they've made, there are about 17 dozen things they can do before turning to taxes.
In the bad old days before Proposition 2-1/2, homeowners had little say over their property tax bill. City and town halls could, and did, raise taxes with impunity. The genius of Prop. 2-1/2 was not in cutting levies that were among the highest in the solar system but in forcing municipal officials to submit to the discipline of the ballot box.
Among other provisions, Prop. 2-1/2 compelled town officials to seek voters' permission before increasing tax collections by more than 2.5 percent. Mayors, city councilors, and town managers have detested Prop. 2-1/2 for 14 years. They can't stand giving the sheep a say in whether to schedule a shearing.
In 1981, overwrought Brookline Town Meeting members held a candlelight vigil to protest Proposition 2-1/2. It was an evil, they wailed, on a par with the Vietnam War. (This was the crew that annually voted not to permit the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited at the beginning of Town Meeting. Brookline can be a peculiar place.)
But martial analogies notwithstanding, Prop. 2 1/2 works precisely as intended. Over the years, a majority of Massachusetts towns have put overrides on the ballot. Some have failed, some have passed. But in every case, it was the voters who decided, not the candlelight vigilantes.
If your town has been through an override campaign, you've heard the mythology about local revenues drying up. In reality, revenues have soared since Prop. 2 1/2 became law. Brookline has seen revenues climb from $66 million in 1984 to $111 million this year. After adjusting for inflation, say the chairman of Brookline's board of selectmen and the former head of its finance committee, the town "is working with approximately $7.5 million more revenue than it had at the outset of Proposition 2 1/2."
It has so much money because it has such high taxes. The average owner of a single-family home in Brookline pays $6,100 annually in property taxes. Residents pay through the nose for licenses and permits. Brookline is so ferocious about persecuting automobile owners that revenue from parking fines has streaked from $50,000 a year in the mid-'80s to more than $2 million a year now.
Brookline's problem isn't a shortage of money. It is that the money is squandered.
This is a town with a director of engineering and a town engineer. A town that pays its administrators more than virtually any municipality in Massachusetts. A town that requires four firefighters to ride on every fire truck, even when there's no fire. A town that has spent tens of thousands of dollars buying restaurant meals for selectmen and their staff. A town that refuses to consolidate overlapping departments.
Looking for the Gang That Couldn't Count Straight? Try Brookline Town Hall:
* The town's ex-treasurer, Shirley Sidd, stuck checks worth millions of dollars in a vault and left them lying there, uncashed, for weeks.
* Brookline's computer system was obsolete on the day it was installed. Databases don't mesh. As a result, tax and budget information is chronically late, incomplete and wrong.
* The School Department, an incoherent mess, made budget blunders that cost the town some $3 million.
Unlike this column, the examples of mismanagement could go on and on. Giving Brookline more taxes is like giving Foster Brooks another drink. Sensible bartenders know when to stop pouring; sensible taxpayers know when to vote no.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)