Editorial: The income tax debate begins
The petitions are signed, certified and delivered. The question the Massachusetts political establishment most fears will be on the ballot in November: the repeal of the state income tax.
At best, we can hope that the initiative will prompt a serious discussion of what citizens should expect from state government and what it takes to pay for it. We'll get to debate not just how much taxation is too much, but how various taxes compare in terms of fairness and efficiency.
This will be a real experiment in democracy, a test of whether, given the chance, people will put their personal financial gains ahead of their obligations as citizens to support basic government functions.
At worst, we'll see what damage will result if more than half of voters choose their wallets over the good of the commonwealth.
The damage would be considerable. Eliminating the income tax will drain more than $11 billion from state revenues, which is about 42 percent of this year's $28.3 billion budget. But the cuts won't be across the board. Federal mandates including Medicare, debt service obligations and negotiated contracts will have to be paid in full, meaning the ax will have to cut deeper in other accounts.
How much do proponents think will be left over for state police, prosecutors and prisons? Where do supporters believe the money for day care and prescription drug programs will come from? How will we prevent staffing cuts in vital services such as mental health, youth services and housing? Which highways won't get plowed in the winter? Which state parks won't open in the summer?
Tuition and fees at UMass, the state colleges and community colleges are already high compared to public higher education in other states. How much higher would they have to go if the Legislature has to cut more than half of the $1.1 billion now budgeted for higher education?
That investment is small compared to the nearly $4 billion the state sends to local school districts in Chapter 70 aid. It's one of the first accounts lawmakers would have to look to if 42 percent of the state's revenue suddenly disappeared. That's just part of the local aid on which cities and towns depend. How many teachers, police or firefighters would lose their jobs? How many roads will go without repairs, the potholes growing ever deeper?
It's easy to paint pictures of devastating cuts in services, but it's also likely that if the income tax disappears, the revenue to sustain government functions will be found elsewhere. Other taxes will go up: the sales tax, perhaps, to fill holes in the state budget; local property taxes to make up for the loss of local aid.
So the debate should include a comparison of taxes. The income tax takes the same percentage of earned income, but families with more income pay more taxes. Property taxes are more arbitrary, based on the market value of homes, not on people's ability to pay. Sales taxes put a proportionately greater burden on the poor. Which tax should be cut and which should grow?
Everyone hates taxes, but those who think Massachusetts residents are uniquely burdened ought to hear the complaints from other states. While the Bay State was once among the tax leaders, it now ranks 32nd in terms of the bite state and local taxes take from family income.
Those who want to see the state drop further on the list must consider the cost in quality of life, in the economic climate and in the value of our homes. We can vote income taxes away, but we can't vote away the need for revenue to pay for those things only government can provide.
The proponents have done their job, putting a proposal on the ballot that would, if passed, radically change the way Massachusetts state and local governments function. The job of voters, between now and November, is to weigh not just the initiative's potential impact on their wallets, but its impact on their neighbors, their communities, the economy and the state.