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By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2001, The Boston Globe

January 27, 2002

We interrupt the screaming and howling over Acting Governor Jane Swift's drastically slashed state budget to bring you this timely fact:

The budget hasn't been slashed.

The budget hasn't even been trimmed. Or shaved. Or nicked.

The $23.5 billion spending plan proposed by Swift for fiscal 2003 would increase spending by $900 million over the budget the Legislature very belatedly passed last year. For all the talk of how "spare" and "austere" her blueprint is, Swift is trying to push expenditures up, not down. That's the outrage: Tax revenues have been dropping since last summer, we are well into a recession, and Swift thinks the time has come to spend even more.

First Rule of Holes, governor: When you're in one, stop digging. You're a Republican, you're supposed to know that. Or have you been surrounded by Democrats for so long that you've become as profligate and irresponsible as they are?

All right, I take that back. At least Swift, unlike the Democrats who run the House and Senate, was responsible enough to file her budget on time. And at least she had the integrity to treat the rollback of the state income tax, which the voters of Massachusetts approved in a landslide 14 months ago, as a top priority.

And that, of course, is what the wailing over Swift's bigger budget is really all about: The Democrats and lobbyists and special-interest advocates want it to be bigger still, and they want to pay for it by killing the people's tax cut. It infuriates them that the governor thinks taxpayers need their money more than Beacon Hill does. Last week Senate President Tom Birmingham was so enraged that he began spitting metaphors. "What her budget highlights," he fumed, "is the cost of the straitjacketed, damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead approach to the implementation of the tax rollback." It is, he said, "a triumph of rigid ideology."

Democrats like Birmingham believe that there can never be any higher or better use for money than a government outlay. That is why they never objected to the past decade's huge annual increases in state spending, yet fiercely resisted every attempt to cut individual taxes.

Question: Why did voters have to resort to a ballot intiative to lower the income tax to 5 percent? Answer: Because the Legislature had refused for 11 years to repeal the "temporary" tax hikes of 1989-90. For all that time, Massachusetts taxpayers were mulcted of billions of dollars that should have been theirs to keep. That was just fine with Birmingham and his party of big spenders. But now that the taxpayers have taken matters into their own hands and enacted a rate reduction, obeying the law as written suddenly becomes "a triumph of rigid ideology."

Birmingham and House Speaker Tom Finneran point out that when the tax cut was adopted, no one realized an economic slowdown was on its way. That's true. The voters didn't foresee the tough times. They didn't know that jobs would dry up, that the stock market would fall, and that household budgets would be badly stressed. And if they had? They would have voted to cut taxes by an even more lopsided margin.

The hype and heat about the state budget "crisis" is insanely overblown. By any standard this side of the Socialist Workers Party platform, the public sector in Massachusetts is large, intrusive, and well-fed. With a $23 billion budget, it will continue to involve itself in everything from auto insurance to manicurists to zoos. There was wailing last week because Swift's budget didn't include free dental care for poor adults. But since when is free dental care a function of the state? Where is it written that every conceivable good idea must be effected by government and paid for with money withheld from people's earnings?

Swift's proposal to reduce funding for antismoking programs, meanwhile, brought this lament from Lori Fresina of the American Cancer Society: "Once a smoker is hooked, it is so difficult for them to quit. We have to invest in tobacco prevention just as we would in a polio vaccine."

No argument there, Ms. Fresina. But why does the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have to be the "investor?" Why can't the American Cancer Society raise the necessary funds from willing donors and pay for these programs itself? Why must the state, which seems to be engaged in wars against everything from illiteracy to AIDS, fight a war on tobacco as well?

Birminghan, Finneran, and the Democrats who do their bidding are hip-deep in schemes to kill the tax cut. But they have no intention of reducing their own "expense account" slush fund, which they doubled to $7,200 per legislator in 2000. Or of giving back the 8 percent salary hike they received last year (courtesy of a 1998 ballot measure). Their pay is sacrosanct. It's yours they don't mind cutting.

Delaying or dislodging the tax rollback will not balance the budget or restore fiscal calm to Beacon Hill. It will merely fuel more spending by an incontinent Legislature. If you let them take your tax cut now, it may be another 11 years before you get it back.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
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