TIME AND AGAIN, Citizens for Limited Taxation has come to the rescue of Massachusetts taxpayers. Will taxpayers come to the rescue of CLT?
CLT's happy warrior: Executive Director Barbara Anderson
In 1980, CLT stunned the Massachusetts political establishment with its successful crusade to slash property and auto-excise taxes, which were then among the highest in America. CLT's weapon was Proposition 2½, a ballot question vehemently denounced by the state's liberal elite, including the League of Women Voters, the Massachusetts League of Cities and Towns, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association. In an editorial, the Boston Globe blasted the measure's "meat-ax approach" and condemned its proponents as "fanatical critics of municipal government" who were oblivious to the devastation they would cause.
But the voters followed CLT, and approved Proposition 2½ by a wide margin. Far from wreaking havoc across the commonwealth, the law became "the most powerful engine of change in recent Massachusetts political history," as even the Globe would later acknowledge -- the single greatest factor in "the state's amazing turnaround."
In 1996, the nonpartisan civic-affairs journal CommonWealth described Proposition 2½ as "the most sweeping public policy reform in recent Massachusetts history -- and one that did not come about from the efforts of 'progressive' reformers." Nevertheless, it pointed out, CLT accomplished much that even "good-government liberals might well applaud," including a decreased reliance on regressive property taxes, a more sensible real-estate assessment system, better management of municipal budgets, and -- since Prop 2½ allows local communities to override the statutory levy limit with voter approval -- more democratic decision-making, at least when it comes to property taxes.
CLT is almost preposterously tiny, and it has always operated on a shoestring. Its four paid staffers make far less than many of their opponents -- the legislators, lobbyists, and union officials whose appetite for higher taxes and more government spending never seems to diminish. Barbara Anderson, the incorruptible happy warrior who became CLT's executive director in 1980, earns just $10 an hour.
But even a shoestring budget needs to pay for shoestring, and CLT is no longer sure it can do so. Between the recession and the exodus of fed-up citizens from Massachusetts, CLT's membership has shrunk dramatically, from 10,000 in the mid-1990s to only around 3,000 today. CLT has also lost some of its most generous donors -- among them Richard Egan, the founder of EMC Corp., who died in August. As a result, CLT announced last week, "we are hurting financially more than ever before." The group's annual fundraising brunch on Nov. 15 may be its last hurrah: If turnout is low, says co-director Chip Ford, CLT will shut down on Nov. 16.
Property taxes in Massachusetts aren't cheap -- but they are far lower than they would have been without Proposition 2½
But with state government once more a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, with the state's sales tax rate now up to 6.25 percent, and with Beacon Hill hungrily seeking more revenue, the prospect of CLT's demise should be setting off alarms.
Were it not for CLT, Massachusetts taxpayers and businesses would be forking over far more of their wealth to the tax man than they do. In addition to blocking graduated tax rates and reining in property taxes, CLT forced the repeal in 1986 of an income surtax enacted under Governor Michael Dukakis and led a successful ballot campaign in 2000 to roll back state income taxes. Though it hasn't won every battle, it has never shied from the battlefield.
"Without the benefit of paid signature-gatherers or the large advertising budgets deployed against them by the public-employee unions who fought their every move," wrote Jon Keller in The Bluest State, his acclaimed 2007 study of Massachusetts politics, "Barbara Anderson and CLT ... established themselves as the state's most effective check on runaway taxation, far more formidable than the toothless handful of Republicans in the legislature."
With hard work and good humor, Citizens for Limited Taxation has made Massachusetts a much better place than it would otherwise be. It has survived a lot in the past 35 years, but it cannot survive indifference. If you're free on Nov. 15, you might want to have brunch with Barbara Anderson.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)