Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Scariest Thing I Can Imagine for Massachusetts at Halloween? Passage of the Three Ballot Measures

It's Halloween weekend.  On October 30, 1938, thousands of well-intentioned Americans, misinterpreting a radio play based on H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds as an actual news broadcast, allegedly panicked and concluded that Martians were invading Earth.

We are more sophisticated in dealing with information now, so it would be a shame if fear drove Massachusetts voters, confronting very real rather than imaginary social and fiscal threats, to support three statewide ballot measures that would have a disastrous effect on stability and social justice in our communities. Questions Number One and Three would reduce specific taxes. Number Two, though complex in its wording, boils down to an attempt to dismantle the legal requirement that cities and towns provide affordable housing.  The Amherst Select Board officially endorses "No" votes on Questions 1 and 3 because they would have a direct and decisive impact on the town's budgets and services.

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Every time an election rolls around, the Select Board considers whether to take a position on the various ballot initiatives. We (I say this in full awareness that this is the first time I myself have taken part) approach this task with great seriousness because we realize that town residents hold diverse opinions, and that decent people can have honest differences over both policy and principle.  When the five of us speak as a body, then, it is not in order to advocate for our personal views, and instead, to convey our best shared judgment of what is in the overall or long-term interest of the town.

Few issues are more sensitive and divisive than taxes.   We see and feel their bite.  For philosophical and practical reasons alike, recent Select Boards have been very cautious about supporting any form of increased taxation. The Select Board (shortly before I was elected) endorsed last year's relatively modest local property tax override only after an extended period of enforcing new fiscal responsibility:  cutting budgets to the bone, implementing responsible long-range planning based on a community-input process.

Several times since the election this spring, Select Board members have taken part in regional gatherings devoted to planning and the relation between state and local government:  State Senator Rosenberg's annual municipal conference in Northampton in March, the statewide leadership conference for select boards in Sturbridge in June, and so forth. Each time, we heard the dire warning: don't think that, because the national economy is slowly improving, we can look forward to a rosy future. On the contrary.  Fiscal Year (FY) 11 is tough, but FY 12 may actually be worse.  Not only is state revenue uncertain at best: we also won't have the cushion of federal stimulus money. The Governor and the experts thus see improvement in FY 13 at the earliest.  And even then, as my Select Board colleague Alisa Brewer continues to remind us, we cannot become complacent:  many things that have been cut never can and never will come back, even with the return of better times and higher revenues.

When I took part in the candidates' forum at the time of my election to the Select Board, I was asked a question about tax overrides. The issue next Tuesday is maintaining existing taxes rather than adding new ones, but the principle is the same. What I said last March was that we need to take into account not just the effect on the residents' tax burden, as such, but also the total direct and indirect cost, as it affects our daily lives.  Cuts in essential services that yield tax savings may appear attractive at the time, but we nonetheless pay for what is lost:  eventually, privately—and inequitably. For example, I grew up in a college town with excellent public services and public works maintenance; trash pickup included even yard waste and tree branches.  Times have changed.  When I moved to Amherst, I learned that waste collection here had been privatized.  I now pay $ 390 per year just for collection of recycling and one can of garbage per week.  Most residents would scream at the prospect of a tax override that restored only one service at such an annual cost.  Last spring's override, which ensured continuation of numerous essential services, cost the average homeowner half that amount ($ 192).

I grudgingly pay that waste disposal bill because I have to and it gives me access to a necessary service now available only in the private sector.  By contrast, if Questions 1 and 3 pass, and we have to slash our budget even more deeply, I cannot, as a private citizen, hire a policeman or a teacher, see to it that our pothole-filled roads are maintained, or otherwise compensate for the resultant harm to the public good.

It is hard to be put in the position of defending regressive indirect taxes—a sales tax that has risen from 5 to 6.25 percent, and the recent application of that sales tax to alcohol (already subject to excise tax)—but irresponsible state and federal policies (dating back to the Reagan era and reinforced under the two Bush regimes), combined with dismal economic conditions, have confronted our towns with a Hobson's choice. Proposition 2 1/2 makes it extremely difficult to raise even the regressive property tax (an antiquated one based on land as the prime source of wealth, in any case), and there is no political will or civil courage to shift the focus of taxation to a more progressive graduated state income tax (seemingly more visible and painful, but ultimately more fair and sustainable).

As a result, we have become dependent on the most backward taxes just in order to maintain essential services. It's that bad.  This, of course, is exactly the box in which the cynical Reaganites and latter-day apostles of the anti-tax gospel sought to put us.

Cutting even these admittedly regressive sales and alcohol taxes at a time of fiscal crisis would therefore devastate our towns, and eliminating the best measure that we have to support affordable housing—responsible for 80 percent of the new units over the past decade—is equally unacceptable; indeed, that would add insult to injury. Again:  Yes, it's really that bad. Read the Select Board's statement below.

A skeptical commentator on tax issues writes:
Prediction: Question 1 is likely to be defeated by a wide margin, leaving Massachusetts' sales tax on alcoholic beverages in place.

What I'm wondering is if the pro-tax folks win, will they contribute to Massachusetts' treasury by toasting their victory with taxable beverages?
Well yes, I will—in fact, in all three cases, I hope.  It's a win-win situation:   No sacrifice is too great for the good of the Commonwealth.  Look for me in one of our fine establishments serving local or microbrews. (And in any case, we wouldn't want to become sanctimonious and humorless.)

And that reminds me: As chance would have it, Jim Koch, the visionary founder of the Boston Beer Company—best known to most of us as the producer of Samuel Adams beerwas in the Valley on Friday to promote his program of microloans "to support low- and moderate-income small business owners in the food and beverage industry." To date, he noted with surprise, no one from western Massachusetts had applied.

I'm sure we on the Select Board will take some heat for our stance, but let's remind ourselves again:  we all agree that fiscal affairs are a mess and the financial situation of many families and individuals, precarious.  The ballot measures represent one legitimate attempt to address that problem.  We simply and sincerely believe that it is the wrong one. That's a legitimate view, too.

Cut to Denver, Colorado, in the heartland of America, where a referendum wants the city to take the lead in welcoming aliens from other planets.   The opposition is being led by—of all people—the head of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society (got that?).
Ballot Initiative 300 would require the city to set up an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission, stocked with Ph.D. scientists, to "ensure the health, safety and cultural awareness of Denver residents" when it comes to future contact "with extraterrestrial intelligent beings or their vehicles."...
Initiative 300 made it to Tuesday's ballot on the strength of roughly 4,000 voter signatures. It starts from the premise that intelligent aliens have been visiting Earth for decades, but the federal government has conspired to keep that quiet.
"We need to get this out of the realm of the Tooth Fairy and into the realm of diplomatic protocol," says Ricky Butterfass, who works on the campaign. (read the rest)
And people say Amherst is detached from reality.

Seriously, folks: Voting "yes" on Questions 1, 2, and 3 is a bit like overindulging in those taxable alcoholic beverages. It seems a good thing to do at the time.  It induces pleasurable feelings, perhaps even a heady sensation of power.  But the price will be a terrible hangover.

Vote "no." Any other outcome is just too scary to contemplate.

Smashed (not Smashing) pumpkins (h.t: .jrk & UChicago)
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The starting place for informed voting is the website of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth

2010 Statewide Ballot Questions (contains the text and an objective summary of the content of each measure)

• 2010 Ballot Questions (contains very brief summaries of the measures, followed by more detailed statements by proponents and opponents):

Question 1
Question 2
Question 3

Below, the official position of the Select Board, as well as other editorial commentary

Select Board statement
Amherst Select Board states its case against Questions 1 and 3
Published on October 29, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following essay was submitted by Select Board members Stephanie, O'Keeffe, Diana Stein, Alisa Brewer, Aaron Hayden and Jim Wald.

Taxes. So easy to hate! Why would anyone want to give their hard-earned money to "the government" instead of keeping it for themselves? It's no wonder people are tempted by ballot questions 1 and 3.

Question 1 would eliminate the recently enacted sales tax on alcohol, and Question 3 would reduce the sales tax from its current 6.25 percent to 3 percent. While being able to save a few tax pennies per dollar spent has a certain appeal, the real issue is: How do those savings compare to what would be lost if the state doesn't receive that tax revenue?

Budget projections for next year already show the state to be facing about a $2 billion deficit, due to the end of federal stimulus money and the slow economic recovery. Rolling the sales tax back to 3 percent would mean the loss of an additional $2.5 billion to the state coffers. If Question 3 passes, the state will face approximately a $4.5 billion gap. (read the rest)
My former colleague on the Comprehensive Planning Committee, Jim Oldham, a regular op-ed contributor to the Bulletin, representing the progressive voice, last week published his cogent statement opposing all three measures:
We are experiencing a period of extreme political negativity: Legitimate voter anger and frustration at the failure of government to address the needs and concerns of ordinary people is being hijacked by radical conservatives who scapegoat minorities and offer plans that destroy what is good about government rather than fix what is wrong.

Here in Massachusetts this misdirected populist uprising is reflected in three statewide ballot questions to be decided in the Nov. 2 election. The most positive thing one can do is vote no, no and no. (read the rest)
Finally, this week, the editors of the Bulletin themselves came out with a strong negative recommendation:
Editorial: Ballot questions rate a big 'no'
Published on October 29, 2010

Massachusetts voters will consider three statewide questions Tuesday. If approved, Question 1 would scrap the sales tax on alcoholic beverages; Question 2 would repeal 40B, the state's affordable housing law; and Question 3 would reduce the state's sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent. The right answer to all three questions, we believe, is "No."

Certainly, in tight economic times, the prospect of lowering taxes, as Questions 1 and 2 propose to do, is appealing. However, in both cases, we believe approving these measures would cost taxpayers considerably more in the long run. (read the rest)
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