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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Vote NO on Question 3

Published: October 29, 2010
Section: Opinions

This week’s column is for all readers who are registered to vote in Massachusetts.

As far as the upcoming midterm election is concerned, our otherwise wonderful Commonwealth probably isn’t the most exciting place to be right now. The unfortunate election of Senator Scott Brown aside, this is still among the bluest of blue states. Our overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature shows no sign of moving any farther to the right. Almost all of our incumbent Democratic Congressmen are far enough ahead on the polls to nearly guarantee victory. Even Governor Patrick—whose popularity ratings have never been fantastic—is averaging a respectable six-point lead over Republican challenger Charlie Baker.

But if you thought this means that you can just sit out of the election, think again. The most important decision that voters will make on Tuesday has nothing to do with candidates. Massachusetts, like 23 other states, allows ballot initiatives. And initiatives, while usually considered the pinnacle of direct democracy, are sometimes a breeding ground for crazy ideas that only one half of one percent of a voting population could love.

This year, we have Question 3, also known as The Sales Tax Initiative. Put forward by Carla Howell, president of the Center for Small Government and head of the Alliance to Roll Back Taxes, the initiative seeks to cut the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent.

Howell has made quite the hobby out of her efforts to defund the state, having spearheaded the failed ballot initiatives to eliminate the state income tax in 2008 and 2002. According to the Yes on 3 campaign website, Howell and her allies claim that rolling back the tax will “force state politicians to cut government waste.”

It will certainly force them to do something. According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Question 3 will cut state revenues by $2.5 billion per year. Which, of course, is money the state can’t afford to lose. Due to the recession, Massachusetts has had to make substantial cuts to state programs and local aid in order to maintain a balanced budget. In the coming fiscal year alone, the state government closed a $2.7 billion budget shortfall—and that was with revenue from current tax rates.

I witnessed this problem firsthand this past summer while working as a freelance reporter for my local newspaper in Clinton, Massachusetts. I was covering a school committee meeting, during which the superintendent delivered the annual school budget to the committee members.

He did not look pleased. Actually, he looked like he wanted to shred the document on the spot, rather than read its contents aloud. Only a week before, voters at the annual town meeting had adopted a budget that included cuts in almost every town department, reserving some of the steepest cuts for the school department.

All told, the schools had to cut department heads, the curriculum director, an elementary school art teacher, the high school band director, $100,000 from the school supplies budget, $90,000 from the fuel/gas/electric budget, and the high school librarian. Cutting the librarian position was particularly problematic because, according to the superintendent, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges requires librarians for accredited schools and could choose to put the Clinton Public School System on probation.

If opponents of Question 3 are correct, my hometown could lose over one and a half million dollars in state aid, and many towns could expect to lose even more. This will lead to an even deeper round of cuts: Teachers will be laid off, programs will be cut, and class sizes will increase. So much for Waiting for Superman; Massachusetts students will be lucky if they have Aquaman to turn to.

This probably means nothing to people like Carla Howell, who view the public sector as a fat hog that has been given to much slop to eat. But the truth is that municipalities trimmed all the fat when the recession began. When it showed no sign of ending they cut into muscle. If tax rates are lowered, they will have no choice but to cut bone. Is that really worth an extra few dollars in consumers’ pockets?

Back in September, a Boston Globe poll of Question 3 found that 46 percent are in favor of the measure, while 43 percent oppose it and 11 percent are undecided. A few weeks ago, a Suffolk University poll found that 44 percent are in favor, while 49 percent oppose and 6 percent are undecided. So this is going to be a close one, and the final results are going to depend heavily on who turns out to vote on Tuesday: Will they be anti-tax radicals, or will sensible minds win out?

Just something for you all to think about when you are holding your ballot and wondering if it will make a difference.