AN ANCIENT PROVISION of the Massachusetts Constitution, a buffer against class warfare, commands that wage earners be taxed at a "uniform rate." Four times in the modern era, tax-and-spend types have tried to con voters into replacing the uniform rate with graduated -- that is, rising -- rates. Four times Massachusetts voters have rejected the idea.
But like that other grim bloodsucker, Dracula, the graduated income tax is one ghoul that won't stay dead. It returns to the state ballot this November -- not once, but twice.
Question 6 would amend the constitution by directing the Legislature to create a scale of rising tax rates. Question 7 offers an introductory set of such rates, plus an assortment of tax changes, several of which would lower taxes for some people.
One way to cut through the gathering din over 6 and 7 is to inquire into the links between the graduated income tax and three groups of people:
Who is pushing it? The campaign to impose a grad-tax is being run by the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts, the outfit that has done more to hurt taxpayers than any other in state history. TEAM is a mouthpiece for government-employee unions and welfare lobbyists, which have an obvious and vested interest in higher taxes.
TEAM and its director, left-wing propagandist Jim Braude ("a single-issue zealot," Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Roosevelt dubs him), have been on the anti-taxpayer side of every fiscal debate in recent years.
The Braude Bunch lobbied for the Dukakis tax hikes of 1989 and 1990, which raised the personal income tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent. They were for doubling the capital gains tax and for the infamous sales tax on services. They battled to defeat the proposed tax rollback on the 1990 ballot. They clamored for an $850 million tax hike in 1991.
Phase out the estate tax? Against. Raise the sales tax by a fifth? For. Trim the gas tax by 4.3 cents? "Throwing money away," said Braude at a State House hearing. Asked a state rep: What? Letting people keep more of their earnings is throwing money away? Replied Braude: "Unequivocally. Yes. Absolutely throwing away the money."
Having fought every attempted tax cut in memory, TEAM/Braude now say their grad-tax will cut most people's taxes. Well, Dick Nixon said he wasn't a crook. Some people will say anything.
Who is empowered by it? The proposed amendment does not merely authorize, it requires the state Legislature to create different tax rates for different taxpayers. That's a bit like requiring Wilt Chamberlain to have sex with different women.
Until now, due to the constitution's uniform-rate rule, the Legislature has had to change everybody's tax rate -- or nobody's. That hasn't prevented taxes from going up, but it has made it politically risky to vote for a tax hike. If Question 6 passes, legislators will never again have to face that risk. By segregating wage earners into multiple tax brackets, they'll be free to raise taxes as much as they want, whenever they want, on whomever they want. Domenic Bozzotto, president of Hotel Workers Union Local 26, calls this the "bracket racket."
In 1993 alone, 648 bills affecting state tax law were proposed in the Legislature. Imagine what that lot will do if 6 and 7 pass. Imagine Wilt Chamberlain at a sorority.
Who is affected by it? The grad-tax is being marketed as a soak-the-rich scheme that will pay money to the 92 percent of us who aren't rich. Real life doesn't work that way, of course. Real life doesn't work like Lottery ads, either.
When tax rates become too onerous, the "rich" always have other options. They hire wily tax lawyers. They channel their investments into tax-free ventures. They create tax shelters. They move elsewhere.
Besides, a graduated income tax isn't a wealth tax, it's a tax on earnings. It doesn't penalize people who have old-money trust funds and Jasper Johnses on their walls, but those with high wages. If 6 and 7 pass, it's the cop working inhuman overtime and paid details who will get kicked in the teeth. Or the truck driver who puts in 18 hours a day to pay his kid's college bills. Or the young couple, each working two jobs as they save for a down payment on a house.
Graduating tax rates -- and Question 7 would graduate them all the way up to 9.8 percent -- would especially brutalize small businesses that are subject to individual (not corporate) income taxes. Sole proprietorships, partnerships, start-ups: These are the firms that have generated all net new jobs in Massachusetts since 1990. They do it by plowing their earnings back into the business -- in order to expand, to hire, to test new products, to acquire new equipment.
If TEAM gets its way, these little economic engines will instead be sending their profits to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, where it will be far, far easier for TEAM's members -- the state worker unions, the welfare-industrial complex -- to lay claim to them. It's a cynical, greedy game the grad-taxers are playing. Massachusetts voters have always turned thumbs down on this scam. By voting no on Questions 6 and 7, they can do so again.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)