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Common sense
The state budget crisis is going to be worse than many think. It’s time for plain speaking.

MASSACHUSETTS IS HEADING toward a budgetary crisis that promises to inflict severe and long-lasting social pain. Estimates of revenue shortfalls vary from Governor Jane Swift’s seemingly optimistic $1.6 billion to Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran’s worst-case scenario of $3 billion. The bad-news figure is a moving target. New indications emerge almost weekly suggesting that the fiscal picture is even bleaker than previously imagined. The most recent shocker: a Boston Globe study predicting that the state will collect $1 billion less this year in stock-market-related taxes on capital gains and stock options than it did last year. And if that’s not sobering enough, projections suggest that this market-tax shortfall could grow and persist for three to four years. In simple terms this latest blast of bad news reinforces growing fears that if citizens and politicians think 2002 is going to be a bad year, just wait until they see what’s in store for 2003.

A crisis is clearly in the works. That’s why it is so troubling that Democratic gubernatorial hopeful and former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman has now joined Swift in opposing any delay of the income-tax rollback approved by state voters in a 2000 referendum. Former state senator Warren Tolman has not ruled out joining them, but says that the state must first cut patronage before he would delay a tax cut. (Wake-up memo to the usually astute Tolman: the Commonwealth is looking at job cuts so severe that patronage will seem — at least for a limited period of time — a custom as quaint as the Colonial pastime of bundling.) The other three Democratic candidates — Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Senate president Thomas Birmingham, and former US secretary of labor Robert Reich — favor delaying the cut.

That Swift favors the cut should come as no surprise. There is little profit for an official as short on imagination as our governor to challenge, let alone defy, her Republican base, which remains committed to the cut. Tolman is caught in a sticky wicket. In what many see as a noble move, he’s put his political future on the line by banking that the Clean Elections provision approved by the same voters who voted themselves a tax cut will and should be funded. Since both measures reflect the public will, how can he favor one without supporting the other?

Perhaps he should not be too concerned with consistency, which, as every well-tutored New Englander should know, Emerson called the "hobgoblin of small minds."

For the record, the Phoenix favored the Clean Elections provision and opposed the tax cut. As we pointed out last week in a different context, officials who oppose funding Clean Elections have an obligation to step up to the podium and explain to the public why the clearly stated will of the voters should be circumvented.

And so it is with the tax cut. The public approved the measure during a time of unparalleled prosperity. Can any of us forget the endless national debate between candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush over what to do with the ever-increasing surplus? The notion was in the air that we could all have our cake and eat it too, that we could enjoy government services without having to worry how about how to pay for them. Those days are over. Services as basic as dental care for the poor may be discontinued because of the budget crisis, and, as Seth Gitell’s front-page report ("Bankrupting Justice") this week suggests, the quality of justice throughout the state may be compromised for lack of funds.

Things change. The public understands that, especially after September 11. We believe that a good-faith effort — by candidates and already-elected officials alike — to explain the wrenching choices that lie ahead will be met with respect and, for the most part, understanding by the citizens of the Commonwealth.

That is why Steve Grossman’s proposal is unsettling. Grossman is a tough-minded businessman, a compassionate citizen, and a savvy political insider. His belief that he can use his business skills to save the state money while providing for the cut may have been plausible at another time. But it doesn’t add up today. Whoever takes office next year is going to inherit a mess. The state will be reeling from the cuts of 2002 and anxious to the point of apoplexy about the task of struggling through 2003. If the state constitution did not forbid it, the Commonwealth could go into debt to weather the storm. That might allow the state to afford the tax cut and maintain services. But that is a fantasy. And, we are sad to say, it is a fantasy to believe that if Grossman were elected he could re-engineer state government in the first few weeks of his administration to the point that the social pain caused by budget cuts could be mitigated.

As the statewide election progresses, gubernatorial candidates need to be relentlessly realistic in how they present issues to the voters. The quality of our life — intellectual as well as material — depends on it.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]

Should Massachusetts delay the income-tax rollback? Respond here in the Phoenix Forum.

Issue Date: February 21 - 28, 2002
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