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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Voters reject income tax repeal

On ballot questions, voters answer (Boston Globe) From income taxes to dog racing, issues spark a mix of reactions at the polls. Video by Wendy Maeda; produced by Leanne Burden Seidel/Globe Staff

By Eric Moskowitz Globe Staff / November 5, 2008

By a better than 2-to-1 margin, Massachusetts voters yesterday rejected an effort to repeal the state's income tax, following an aggressive campaign by unions and other opponents who warned that eliminating the tax would gut state government.

Although they were in no mood for change on taxes, voters yesterday did upend the status quo on two other issues. They chose by a wide margin to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, and they also ended the state's seven-decade tradition of greyhound racing.

Six years ago, a similar tax-repeal question attracted little attention and no organized opposition but nearly passed. Stunned tax supporters took no chances this time, spending millions on an aggressive campaign warning that repealing the income tax would trigger drastic cuts to government programs, damage the economy, and prompt increases to other taxes and fees.

"We said the proposal was reckless, and we think voters saw it just as that," said Peter Meade, chairman of the Coalition for Our Communities, which led the opposition.

About 69 percent of voters opposed the repeal, with 80 percent of precincts reporting. In 2002, the repeal prevailed in about 100 communities. As of press time early this morning, it had not carried a single city or town.

The Coalition for Our Communities outspent the supporters of Question 1 by a 10-to-1 ratio through mid-October, a gap expected to widen on finance reports that will be filed after the election. That enabled the question’s opponents to pay for a flurry of television ads and a sophisticated effort to identify likely supporters and undecided voters.

Among other tactics, they sent full-color, personalized mailers that incorporated a voter’s name and community into the imagery and warned of specific local cuts.

Carla Howell, the former Libertarian gubernatorial candidate who led the effort to repeal the tax, blamed the defeat on the fund-raising gap.

"We knew that this was a David-versus-Goliath battle," said Howell, chairwoman of the Committee for Small Government, speaking to a crowd of about 20 supporters at Ken’s Steak House in Framingham last night. "All we needed was a bigger stone."

In an interview afterward, Howell also likened her limited-government bid to the Boston Tea Party, casting the campaign "in the long tradition of little guys trying to do what's right for working men and women."

But there was more than a monetary gap at play. The Coalition for Our Communities drew on a door-to-door network of activists worried about cuts to schools, health centers, public safety, and other programs. In Dorchester and Mattapan alone, more than 100 volunteers from several nonprofits offered rides to the polls yesterday and handed out thousands of palm cards with a thumbs-down icon and the words, "Times are hard enough. Let's not make them worse."

"We know how important Question 1 is to many services that are important to working families across the state," said Cortina Vann, a community organizer with the Dorchester-based Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, where a classroom normally used for a low- and moderate-income home-buyer course had been converted into a war room, the walls covered with charts detailing precinct locations and volunteer schedules.

On the other side, the Committee for Small Government, invested a chunk of its limited resources, which totaled $431,000 through mid-October, early in the campaign, on the signature drive to get the question on the ballot.

After that, Question 1 advocates hoped that frustration with government waste as well as fatigue from strained family budgets would lead many of the state's 3.4 million workers to strike a blow against the 5.3 percent income tax.

"We’re getting taxed to death in Massachusetts," said Bernie Friesecke, a North Reading voter who contributed $85 to the Committee for Small Government.

"You get these television ads that tell you we're going to lose this, that, and the other thing," said Friesecke, a 78-year-old retired aeronautical engineer. "No one’s ever telling you that we've got corruption and spending on stuff we don’t need, in huge quantities."

The question called for cutting the income tax to 2.65 percent on or after Jan. 1 and for eliminating it entirely a year later. That would have returned an average of about $3,700 per worker but stripped the state of roughly $12.5 billion a year, or about 40 percent of funding for the current budget.

Opponents warned that the question would also harm the state’s credit rating and destabilize its economy, in addition to forcing cuts to the myriad services that rely on the tax. The coalition received heavy funding from public labor unions but also attracted outspoken allies in the state's leading business groups and from a wide range of government officials.

Some of those who voted for the question thought it had no chance of taking effect. Andrew Gray, a microbiology graduate student from Somerville, said he knew some supporters who just wanted to tweak government and send a message, thinking it would either lose or be immediately repealed by lawmakers if it passed.

"I don't want to play that sort of gambling game," said Gray, 29, who voted no.

Still, the question won some repeat supporters, such as George Bloom, a 47-year-old engineer from Lynnfield, a town that had widely supported the tax repeal in 2002.

"I agree with virtually nothing the Legislature does. I think they're the biggest bunch of hacks in the world," said Bloom, citing what he considered mismanagement of funds, outsized public-employee pensions, inefficient road projects, and an inhospitable business climate, among other things. "Tell me if I should stop. ... I'm just basically a disgruntled and beaten down voter."

But others in Lynnfield yesterday echoed the message of the Coalition for Our Communities.

"I just think it's kind of reckless," said Christine Noonan, 55, who works as a planner for GE. "And I really don't want to see my property taxes go up."

Globe correspondents John S. Forrester and Jillian Jorgensen contributed to this report.