THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jeff Jacoby

...so who will save us now?

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / October 25, 2009

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TIME AND again, Citizens for Limited Taxation has come to the rescue of Massachusetts taxpayers. Will the taxpayers now come to the rescue of CLT?

For 35 years, CLT has been an unwavering foe of high taxes and government arrogance, two commodities for which Massachusetts is well-known. It was created in 1974 to fight a proposal for steeply graduated income-tax rates, a proposal it defeated in the 1976 election. When the grad-tax returned to the state ballot in 1994, CLT led the fight to defeat it once again.

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 2 1/2, 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 2 1/2 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 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 2 1/2 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 Proposition 2 1/2 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 fund-raising 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.

No organization lasts forever, and at 35 CLT has already outlived many advocacy groups. No doubt diehard welfare-statists and big-government lefties would be happy to attend CLT’s funeral. No doubt many Massachusetts residents have more pressing personal concerns.

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 for 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.

With hard work and good humor, CLT 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 join Barbara Anderson for its fund-raising brunch.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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