Massachusetts May Shed Its High-Tax Reputation

On The Ballot

Massachusetts is one of six states that will vote next month on whether to cut taxes. The biggest proposed change by far is the one that would nix Massachusetts' personal income tax. Voters in other states will vote whether to:

 

North Dakota: Cut the income tax in half

 

Nevada: Restrict property tax measures

 

Arizona: Require a majority vote of citizens to ever raise taxes again

 

Florida: Cut property taxes

 

Oregon: Deduct federal income taxes from state income taxes

 

Maine: Roll back a recently imposed beverage tax

On Election Day, voters in Massachusetts may choose to do away with the state personal income tax — and stage the biggest tax revolt here since the Boston Tea Party.

What started as a small libertarian effort has gotten a boost from all the melancholy economic news.

Take Kristina Nilsson, a freelance musician who plays the violin. She worries about getting work as the economy sours. She thinks there's plenty of waste in state government to put money back into her family's hands.

"We could use that money very nicely," says Nilsson, whose husband has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. "In one way, we could provide assistance to him that we might not otherwise be able to provide him."

If the ballot measure passes, voters such as Nilsson would get to keep the 5.3 percent of their income that they pay to Massachusetts each year. It also would cut $12 billion in funding to the state. That's about 40 percent of its current budget.

Steve Crawford, spokesman for a group of unions that consider the ballot measure fiscal insanity, says state services will suffer if the legislation passes. "We understand that people are having a tough time, and times are tough," he says. "But there's no question it will make it worse."

Some government officials already are threatening to raise property and sales taxes if the state income tax is repealed.

"Don't let people fool you [that] we don't have to pay taxes. That's a lot of hookah hogwash," says Boston Mayor Tom Menino, a Democrat serving his fourth term. "You pay one way or the other. It costs money to run government."

That kind of talk gave the state its reputation for high taxes in the 1970s and 1980s — and earned it the nickname "Taxachusetts." The state now ranks closer to the middle of the pack when it comes to the personal tax burden. But those involved with the national anti-tax movement hope to score a symbolic victory next month.

Grover Norquist is a Massachusetts native who now heads Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group. He says the legislation's passage could spark similar measures in other states.

"Massachusetts voting to repeal the income tax says: If you can do it in Massachusetts, you can do it anywhere," Norquist says.

Initial polling indicated support for the measure at around 40 percent — short of a majority — and that figure has edged down in recent weeks. Supporters hope the more nerve-racking the economy gets, the more likely Massachusetts residents will be to vote themselves a tax cut. But both sides predict the vote will be close.

Curt Nickisch reports from member station WBUR in Boston.

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