Yvonne Abraham

Question 3? Answer is no

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / September 9, 2010

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Here’s a rare find: an issue on which all four candidates for governor — and three treasurer hopefuls — agree.

Slashing the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent is a very bad idea, they all say. And they’re right.

What’s scary is who is not part of this group hug: the public. A State House News Service poll this week found that 54 percent of voters surveyed favor the rollback.

That’s one whopping disconnect.

Leading the charge for the disaster known as Question 3, to appear on November’s ballot, is professional irritant Carla Howell and an army of mad-as-hell small-government types. They’re using the same daffy logic they deployed in their 2008 attempt to do away with the state income tax.

Government wastes huge amounts of our money, they say. Their evidence: a 2008 survey showing voters believe government wastes huge amounts of our money — 41 cents on every dollar, to be precise, according to a randomly-selected group of 500 voters asked to pull figures out of the air.

Five hundred voters might declare I’m a millionaire. Sadly, that doesn’t make it so. Still, advocates use the silly 41 percent figure to argue that the $2.5 billion the rollback would pull from state coffers won’t hurt a bit.

For voters understandably angry about paying higher taxes during hard times, it’s a seductive argument. Especially when lawmakers do a lousy job of making clear what we get in return for our taxes — and tolerate some government waste.

But the rollback would hurt. A lot.

Even if the economy begins to recover, Massachusetts will still face a massive budget shortfall of at least $2 billion next fiscal year, says Mike Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. This is largely because the stimulus and rainy day money we’ve been using to plug deficits during the recession will have dried up. Subtract another $2.5 billion, courtesy of Question 3, and you have a disaster.

The state has already cut $3 billion from budgets in the three years since the recession hit, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. Where will a further $5 billion come from?

Maybe there are too many state employees. But you’d have to fire every single one of them to get to $5 billion. Do we spend too much on public safety? Eliminating the entire judiciary, all DAs, sheriffs, the State Police, and the entire Department of Corrections wouldn’t get us even halfway.

How about human services, the huge bureaucracy that handles mental health, public health, and services for families, seniors, and veterans? Erase all of those services and you’d still be more than a billion short.

There are definitely places government could make relatively painless cuts going forward. But none of it rises to the magnitude we’re talking about.

The candidates realize that, though they express their disagreement with varying degrees of courage. Governor Deval Patrick calls the consequences of Question 3 “calamitous.’’ Independent Tim Cahill and Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein say it goes too far.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker says it’s “too much, too fast’’ (though his own proposal to cut sales, income, and corporate taxes to 5 percent in his first term would also leave a huge hole in state finances).

And GOP treasurer candidate Karyn Polito agrees, though her position is tortured (she wants voters to pass Question 3 to “send a message,’’ then she wants legislators to move the sales tax to 5 percent). Her Democratic counterparts oppose the rollback.

In these fractious times, that’s a remarkable consensus. The fact that not one of the candidates — some of them champion panderers — is willing to go as far as those 54 percent of voters is a testament to the severity of our situation. And to the wrong-headedness of Question 3.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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