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ROLLING OUT THE 'FINNERAN GAMBIT'

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

April 25, 2002

The Massachusetts Constitution doesn't actually require state legislators to be hypocritical, greedy, and contemptuous of the voters who elected them; they just tend to turn out that way. So when The Boston Globe surveyed the House and Senate membership on whether state income taxes should jump 6 percent next year, a large majority of those responding naturally said yes.

The pretty euphemism is that this would not actually be a tax hike, merely a "freeze" in the scheduled tax rollback. But under existing law, the income tax rate as of Jan. 1, 2003 is 5 percent. Any legislation changing that to a higher rate is a tax increase, plain and simple.

But where the Massachusetts state budget is concerned, nothing is plain and simple.

Year after year, that budget has raced ahead of inflation, nearly doubling from $13 billion in 1991 to more than $23 billion today. For most of those years, tax revenues flooded the Treasury, pouring in faster than they could be spent. The Legislature flung money everywhere -- at the teachers lobby, at sports moguls, at convention centers, at the Big Dig, at pay raises for politicians, at endless barrels of pork.

Only one thing did the Legislature insist it couldn't afford: relief for the taxpayers from whom all this money was being taken. Every proposal to reduce the state income tax rate -- which had been "temporarily" jacked up in 1989 and 1990 -- was defeated or ignored. In 2000, the taxpayers finally did something about it. By a landslide, they voted for Question 4, the Citizens for Limited Taxation initiative to gradually drop the income tax rate from 5.95 percent to 5 percent.

Liberals howled that Massachusetts would revert to the Dark Ages if Question 4 passed. The budget would be decimated, they said. Criminals would roam at will, the sick would die, the poor would starve, bridges would crumble -- the usual parade of horribles. Voters heard them out, weighed their arguments (and CLT's counter-arguments), and thought about the consequences. Then they voted for Question 4 by a commanding margin.

The meaning of that vote could hardly have been plainer: The people of Massachusetts considered tax relief more important than high government spending. They didn't mind cuts in the state budget if that was the price of getting the tax rate back down to 5 percent. So now that revenues have slowed and a $23 billion budget is no longer affordable, the Legislature's path should be clear: Reduce spending -- and keep the tax cut on schedule.

But the last thing the Legislature worries about is its mandate from the voters. So what if the public wants lower taxes and lower spending? So what if growth in the state budget has vastly outpaced growth in personal income? So what if Massachusett taxpayers already bear the 4th-heaviest per capita tax burden in America? So what if more than 1.5 million voters -- 60 percent of the 2000 turnout -- passed a law restoring the income tax rate to 5 percent?

The Legislature couldn't care less. Dancing to the tune played by House Speaker Tom Finneran and Senate President Tom Birmingham, the Democrats will insist that they need the taxpayers' money more than the taxpayers do. They have begun to execute what CLT's Chip Ford calls the Finneran Gambit: "Scare the hell out of everyone with draconian proposed budget cuts where they'll cause the most pain, agitate as many vocal special interest groups as possible . . . , then ride in next week with tax increases disguised as salvation."

There are some honorable exceptions. Representative Christopher Asselin, a Springfield Democrat, says he will honor his constituents's preference for spending cuts over tax hikes. But most of his colleagues will do what the leadership wants -- force the working men and women of Massachusetts to make do with less so the government of Massachusetts can spend more.

As a matter of decency and integrity, of course, legislators voting to take away the people's tax cut should be willing to give up the lucrative perks they have bestowed on themselves.

For instance, they should give back the 8 percent pay hike they pocketed last year, the fruit of a deceptive constitutional amendment they wrote to guarantee themselves a raise every other year. They should stop taking a bonus for commuting to work, an outrageous benefit that netted them an average of $4,216 each last year. They should abolish their "office expense" accounts, $7,200-per-member slush funds that can be spent on anything the member wants. They should do away with the phony "leadership" pay that enriches one of every four legislators -- mostly Finneran or Birmingham loyalists -- by up to $15,000.

Don't hold your breath. The Sacred Cod hanging in the House chamber will jump off the wall and do the Funky Chicken before senators and representatives start taking away their own pay.

So get out your handkerchiefs, ladies and gentlemen. The lawmakers you elected are about to spit in your face. You probably won't like the way it feels, but you should be used to it by now. This is Massachusetts, after all.

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