IF ANTITAX activists in Massachusetts had a real plan to slash the cost of state government, they’d have put it forward by now — and it would have found a receptive audience. When Governor Patrick and the Legislature raised the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent last year, the increase came at a terrible time for many families in Massachusetts, and even many voters who favor an active government and a strong safety net bristled at being asked to kick in more.
But Question 3 on Tuesday’s ballot wouldn’t bring the sales tax back down to its old level; rather, the measure would cut one of the state’s major revenue sources by more than half, to 3 percent — and it would do so without even giving legislators or local officials any tools to bring costs down correspondingly. This isn’t a budget strategy. It won’t magically produce the leaner, more efficient government that Massachusetts needs. It’s a stunt designed mainly to create chaos in state government.
The ballot measure comes from the same anti-tax activists who pushed an unsuccessful effort two years ago to eliminate the state income tax. The theory behind both efforts is that reducing the flow of money into the state treasury will force legislators and the governor to cut unnecessary programs. But the size of the proposed cut is essentially arbitrary. And by shearing $2 billion to $2.5 billion in revenues from the state budget, the ballot measure would force deep cuts in a panoply of vital public services. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that functions ranging from corrections to education would have to be cut by nearly 30 percent.
The problem is that the factors driving up the cost of government in Massachusetts don’t simply disappear when revenues plunge, and the expenditures that are hardest to justify to taxpayers are also the hardest ones to cut quickly. Question 3 won’t shrink Billy Bulger’s bloated retirement, because various laws and court precedents make it all but impossible to claw back pensions that have already been awarded. Question 3 won’t bring benefits for public-sector workers in line with the private sector, because the ballot measure does nothing to improve state and local governments’ bargaining position in negotiations with unions. Question 3 won’t undo the cost overruns of the Big Dig, and the lingering debt from that project still loom large. Indeed, by producing more frequent, and more severe budget shortfalls, Question 3 will prompt state and local agencies to put today’s expenses on the credit card for future generations to pay off.
The sales tax, at least as it’s structured in Massachusetts, is one of the more equitable options for collecting revenue. Even at 6.25 percent, the rate is lower than in most other jurisdictions with sales taxes. And by exempting food and most clothing items from the tax, the Commonwealth isn’t penalizing residents for tending to their most basic needs.
Backers of Question 3 insist that the cut will improve the economy because consumers will have more money to spend. The reality isn’t so simple. Today, the state’s major growth engines are the dense clusters of highly sophisticated workplaces — such as the Longwood Medical Area, Kendall Square, and high-tech belts along routes 128 and 495 — that depend on a functioning transportation system, predictable municipal services, and the nation’s best public schools. There’s a reason most business interests in the state strongly oppose Question 3.
There is a way for fiscal hawks to use ballot measures to promote efficiency in state government, but Question 3 isn’t it. Last year, the mere threat of a ballot question prompted the Legislature to lift the cap on charter schools. Ballot measures could be similarly helpful in, for instance, adjusting the legal framework for public pensions, giving municipal officials broad authority over copays and other terms of health plans, and moving retired public employees out of municipal insurance and into Medicare — all steps that could yield huge savings for taxpayers over time.
But the antitax activists behind Question 3 have undercut legitimate reformers. If they had restrained themselves to rolling the sales tax back to 5 percent, they could have sparked a meaningful debate. But by cleaving back to 3 percent, they’ve put even the most dedicated budget cutters in an awful bind: Support Question 3 without any rational way to pay for it, or oppose it and appear to be defending the bureaucracy.
The public needn’t take part in this cynical exercise. While taxpayers should demand more reforms from the next governor and Legislature, even fed-up voters should reject Question 3.