WHEN IT COMES to stopping Question 1 - the ballot initiative to abolish the Massachusetts income tax - the defenders of the status quo will spare no rhetorical expense.
Months ago, Governor Deval Patrick called the prospect of Massachusetts without an income tax "a dumb idea" reminiscent of Darfur. The National Education Association, one of the public-employee unions bankrolling the Vote No campaign, condemns Question 1 as "reckless." Michael Widmer, head of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, labels it "a calamity." To the Globe's editorial board, it's "a blunt budget ax." Equally scathing is the Berkshire Eagle's description: "devastating . . . simplistic . . . cynical . . . a recipe for disaster." Robert Haynes, president of the state AFL-CIO, foresees "the end of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as we know it."
To their credit, most of the measure's opponents have steered clear of the incendiary language used by Frederick Rushton, the Worcester city councilor who has slammed Question 1 as an "urban lynching by statute." But there are still four weeks until Election Day, and the anti-repeal forces will not lack for energy or imagination in making sure their message is heard.
If only they had put a fraction of that energy and imagination into making sure our message was heard.
Yes, Question 1 is a "blunt budget ax." As a last resort, that is sometimes the only tool that can get a job done. For years Massachusetts taxpayers have been seeking tax relief by more temperate means. And what have patience and moderation gotten us?
In 2000, tired of waiting for Beacon Hill to repeal the "temporary" tax hikes of 1989-90, we voted overwhelmingly for a phased rollback of the income tax to its traditional rate of 5 percent. But the Legislature froze the rollback at 5.3 percent six years ago, and there it has remained to this day.
We voted to make charitable contributions tax-deductible. Lawmakers repealed the deduction. Incensed after they raised taxes by $1.2 billion - "the largest tax increase in state history," the Globe called it - 45 percent of us voted for a 2002 ballot measure to scrap the income tax. "A wake-up call," the pundits dubbed it, but the liberal power structure that dominates Massachusetts didn't wake up. It merely turned over and resumed dreaming of new ways to mulct the taxpayer.
Time and again, the voters' restraint has been repaid with disdain by a political class that seems to believe there is no higher or better use for our money than a government expenditure. Nothing has penetrated the politicians' indifference to the frustration and anxiety of so many Massachusetts residents. Maybe a blunt budget ax will get their attention.
Every few years Beacon Hill wails that it is facing a "fiscal crisis" or threatened by a "budget shortfall" that will mean "painful" or "devastating" cuts in government spending. Just last week, Governor Deval Patrick's office promised "hundreds of millions of dollars" in reduced outlays this fiscal year. And yet, somehow, the state budget continues to bloat: It was $22 billion in 2005, $23 billion in 2006, $25 billion in 2007, and $26 billion in 2008. The fiscal 2009 budget adopted in July - the one Patrick now claims he will cut unilaterally - totaled $28.2 billion. But if anything in Massachusetts is certain, it is that when the books close on the current fiscal year, state spending will have gone up by hundreds of millions of dollars, not down.
To those who feed at the Bay State's public trough, the rest of us exist primarily to pay taxes. Their need for more of our income is always a given. The notion that we might need it more than they do never seems to cross their minds. For six years, we have watched the Legislature swell state spending by a billion dollars or more every year. Yet the voter-mandated income-tax rollback remains "frozen" at 5.3 percent.
Enough is enough. It's not our job to answer to the politicians and their allies in the public-employee unions. It's their job to answer to us. For years we've pleaded for tax relief and fiscal responsibility; for years those pleas have been dismissed. It's clear that nothing will change unless we force it to. It's equally clear that only one thing will force that change: a vote for Question 1 on Nov. 4.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at [email protected].