ON ELECTION DAY five years ago, 885,683 Massachusetts citizens voted for a ballot measure to abolish the Massachusetts income tax - a 45 percent level of support that shocked the state's political establishment, which had expected the question to go down to ignominious defeat, not come within a few percentage points of passing. So when Libertarian leader Carla Howell launched a new effort to junk the income tax earlier this year, the powers that be made it clear that this time they would do everything they could to discredit it.
In August, Howell's Committee for Small Government filed its updated ballot language, and Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation wasted no time pouring scorn on it. (Its name notwithstanding, the Taxpayers Foundation is a business lobby that often opposes broad-based tax relief.) Howell's proposal is "absolutely unreasonable," Widmer snorted. "Essentially she's trying to repeal the 20th century."
Undeterred, tax-repeal supporters collected 100,000 voter signatures on initiative petitions, well above the number required to move the measure forward. So Governor Deval Patrick is cranking up the rhetoric. He told the Associated Press last week that undoing the income tax is "just a dumb idea" that would utterly devastate Massachusetts.
"Patrick said he has lived in places with no taxes, including the time he spent in Darfur 30 years ago," AP's Steve LeBlanc reported. "He says there were also no bridges, no good roads, and no public safety there. 'Civilization costs something,' he said. 'If we could have something for nothing, which is the fiction that has been sold by the right for some time now, then we wouldn't have a $19 billion upkeep backlog for the roads and bridges.' "
If that is Patrick's best case for preserving inviolate the state income tax, maybe he shouldn't be tossing the word "dumb" around quite so freely.
To begin with, Massachusetts without a personal income tax would not be a "place with no taxes." It would be a place with corporate income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, meals taxes, hotel taxes, excise taxes, workers' compensation taxes, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, gasoline taxes, cigarette taxes, wine and liquor taxes, motor vehicle taxes, and real estate transfer taxes, not to mention the taxes ("license fees") imposed on a vast array of professions and occupations. The $11 billion collected in personal income taxes accounts for only 40 percent of state revenue. Take that away and the government of Massachusetts still helps itself to more than $16 billion a year. That's not exactly "no taxes."
It's not exactly Darfur, either. What a shameless comparison. Even Patrick cannot possibly believe that the misery and horror of Darfur is caused by insufficient taxation. A ballot initiative to repeal the state income tax is not an invitation to choose between life as we know it today or a life of poverty, lawlessness, and war. To suggest that those are the stakes is both ridiculous and disgraceful.
"Civilization costs something," the governor says, echoing the 1904 dictum of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: "Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society."
Maybe so. But in Massachusetts lately, taxes are also the price we pay for Big Dig corruption, for larcenous public-employee pensions, for state-owned golf courses, and for wretched public schools. Higher taxes are no guarantee of a more civilized society.
As a matter of fact, when Holmes defended taxes as the price tag of civilization, there were no federal and state income taxes. Massachusetts didn't begin taxing incomes until 1916, which means that for most of its history, the Bay State survived - even thrived - without an income tax. As Howell's ballot proposal advances, the fearmongers will shrilly warn that voting yes will plunge us into the Dark Ages. Like all addicts, those hooked on high taxes are terrified by the prospect of giving up their drug. They cannot imagine how much better they will feel when they learn to live without it.
Eliminating the state income tax would reduce government spending by about $11 billion, shrinking the budget to its 1995 level. But that $11 billion would not be lost. It would be back in the private sector - back in the hands of the men and women who earned it, and who are far more likely to spend, invest, or donate it wisely than the bloated state bureaucracy it goes to now.
Nine states - Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming - have no income tax. In 2008, Massachusetts has another chance to make it 10. Last time, the repeal campaign came close. Next year, let's put it over the top.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is [email protected].