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TAXES, COURAGE, AND THE GOVERNOR'S RACE

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

February 28, 2002

"All five of the Democrats running for governor would raise taxes," began The Boston Globe's front-page story on Sunday. Which came as a surprise to exactly nobody: The sun rises in the east, the Red Sox fade down the stretch, and Massachusetts Democrats will raise your taxes. These have been facts of life for so long that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.

Still, it is possible to discriminate among Democrats of greater and lesser integrity. Two of the candidates -- former state Senator Warren Tolman and Steve Grossman, the former Democratic Party chairman -- refuse, to their great credit, to sabotage the modest income-tax rollback approved by voters two years ago. (They would raise other taxes.) The tax rate is scheduled to drop from 5.3 percent to 5 percent next January, thereby finally repealing the "temporary" tax hike imposed by the Democrats 13 years ago. And in Grossman's admirable formulation, "I don't think putting our hands right back in the taxpayers' wallet . . . is the right approach."

The rest of the field has no such inhibition. State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich would both kill -- their euphemism is "freeze" -- the tax rollback before it takes full effect. O'Brien says thwarting the voters' decision would be "fiscally responsible." That is what Democrats always say when they take money away from citizens in order to give it to the government.

And then there is Senate President Tom Birmingham, who not only wants to stop the rollback in its tracks but to jack the income tax rate back up to 5.6 percent. That would amount to one of the heaviest tax increases in Massachusetts history -- a blow to every working man and woman in the commonwealth.

Characteristically, Birmingham is impressed with his own high-mindedness. "I've got to really do this budget, and not just talk about it," says the Senate leader who couldn't manage to "really do" the current budget until nearly five months after the deadline had passed.

By contrast, he seethes with contempt for Acting Governor Jane Swift, who is adamant about defending the tax rollback and has promised to veto any attempt to undo it. "It doesn't get her a chapter in `Profiles in Courage,' " Birmingham snaps. "It's the easiest thing in the world to be in support of tax cuts. But the fact is that it's not responsible at this point."

Well, let's see. Swift is defending the tax cut despite the opposition of the state's most powerful legislators. Despite the opposition of the state's biggest newspaper. Despite the opposition of some -- maybe most -- of the state's corporate big shots. Despite the opposition of the (misnamed) Massachusetts Taxpapayers Foundation, a business organization with great political clout. And despite the opposition, if the most recent statewide poll is to be believed, of a majority of Massachusetts voters. "Profiles in Courage?" Maybe not. But her principled stand is a heckuva lot gutsier than any position Birmingham has taken lately.

It is a classic piece of liberal disinformation to say that supporting tax cuts is "the easiest thing in the world." For left-wing Democrats like Birmingham, it is the easiest thing in the world to oppose tax cuts, particularly broad-based relief that increases people's paychecks. Birmingham was against rolling back the income tax when the economy was booming and he is against it when the economy lags. He was against it when revenues were up and he's against it when revenues are down. If there is one fixed star in his political constellation, it is that income tax rates must never, ever be reduced.

Courage? It isn't courageous of Birmingham to call for higher taxes, it's predictable. Real courage would mean standing up to the army of special interests and narrow constituencies that feed at the public trough and telling them to make do with less. True grit would mean saying no to the teachers union and the welfare lobby and all the other liberal pressure groups that clamor for government subsidies and lavish entitlements. Genuine fortitude would mean being more concerned with those who pay the taxes and less obsequious toward those who consume them.

But that isn't Birmingham's way. He has always found it easier to take another bite out of Joe and Jane Taxpayer than to say "no" to the parasites who feed off the state budget. Perhaps that is understandable

-- both Birmingham and his wife, after all, draw six-figure, tax-funded salaries -- but it is hardly courageous.

Jane Swift has her faults -- just ask the Republicans who are trying to draft Mitt Romney to run for governor -- but taking the easy way out when it comes to tax policy is not among them. If she were to break her no-new-taxes promise, Beacon Hill would cheer, The Globe's editorial page would applaud, and the state's big-business chieftains would smile with approval. Instead, she is sticking to her pledge. Whatever else might be said of her, she's got backbone.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
His E-mail address is -
jacoby@globe.com
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