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Mass. candidates for governor weigh sales tax cut

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press Writer / February 14, 2010

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BOSTON—When Massachusetts residents cast their ballots for governor in November they'll likely face another decision in the voting booth -- whether to lower the state sale tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3 percent.

It's a question that's making those running for the state's top political office nervous.

Of the six declared candidates, only one -- Republican convenience store magnate Christy Mihos -- has endorsed the question.

The other five say they favor lowering the sales tax, just not all the way to 3 percent.

They say they'd be more comfortable returning the rate to 5 percent, where it had been for decades before lawmakers increased it last year to help cope with the state's ongoing fiscal crisis.

It's a dicey political call because some of the candidates are assuming the question may succeed, and they don't want to be at odds with public opinion.

"I suspect that given people's attitudes right now, it has a good chance of passing," said state Treasurer Tim Cahill, who is running as an independent candidate.

Cahill said cutting the sales tax so dramatically would limit options for other tax cuts he'd like to push, including cuts to capital gains, personal income and corporate taxes. Cahill said that although he'd prefer returning the sales tax rate to 5 percent, he'd bend to the will of voters.

"If the ballot question passes at 3 percent, I would make it work, but it wouldn't be my first choice," he said.

Republican Charles Baker is staking out the same position. A spokesman for Baker said the former Harvard-Pilgrim Health Care executive supports rolling back the sales tax rate to 5 percent.

"Charlie is committed to implementing the will of voters should a 3 percent rollback pass," said Baker campaign manager Lenny Alcivar. "He also supports rolling back the income tax to 5 percent, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Massachusetts voters almost 10 years ago."

The income tax rate is currently 5.3 percent.

The only candidate who actively supports cutting the sales tax to 3 percent is Baker's Republican opponent Mihos.

Mihos, who has contributed to help get the question on the ballot, said it would put an average $689 back into the pockets of Massachusetts shoppers each year.

"It's a stimulus for the rest of us," he said.

Mihos conceded that the sales tax cut would be a big hit to the state's coffers -- about $2 billion a year at a time when Massachusetts is still struggling to rebound from the lingering economic fallout of the recession.

If elected, Mihos said he'd close that $2 billion gap by dramatically cutting back the state work force by up to 10 percent. He also predicted that cutting the sales tax would produce a "windfall" for businesses at the state's borders and would encourage job growth that would help offset the revenue losses.

Gov. Deval Patrick is in a stickier position. Although he didn't propose the increase, the Democratic incumbent signed the state budget that included the sales tax hike.

A spokesman for Patrick said he favors rolling back the sales tax once the economy rebounds, but opposes cutting it to 3 percent.

"He understands the burdens on and concerns of working families, and shares their commitment to fund our public schools, local public safety services, and health care," said Alex Goldstein, press secretary for Patrick's campaign. "Cutting the sales tax to 3 percent would mean gutting support for these critical services."

Goldstein said the loss of revenue also would drive up property taxes.

Community organizer Grace Ross, who is challenging Patrick for the Democratic nomination, said she opposed raising the sales tax to 6.25 because she said it disproportionately hurt people who work for a living and spend what they earn.

But Ross also said 3 percent is too low.

"They've put people in a bad position because they're going to have to pick between an increase that was bad and a decrease below what we were spending before, which we probably can't afford," she said.

Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein said she also backs reducing the sales tax rate to 5 percent and possibly lower -- as long as the wealthier pay more.

"I support rolling back the sales tax increase as part of a larger package that would reduce the burden on middle income and working families and ask those at the top, millionaires, to pay their fare share," she said.