Politics

Baker, Coakley steer clear of far-reaching tax talk

Gubernatorial candidates Martha Coakley (left) and Charlie Baker

AP/File photos

Gubernatorial candidates Martha Coakley (left) and Charlie Baker

Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker may clash about their visions for state government, but they share this much in common: Both are treading cautiously when it comes to the perennially charged issue of taxes.

Coakley wants new services such as an extended school day and universal prekindergarten but will not say how much those programs would cost or how to pay for them.

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Baker signed a no-new-taxes pledge and embraced sweeping tax cuts in his 2010 campaign but has abandoned both ideas in favor of smaller, less controversial measures this time around.

The two disagree on some tax issues — he supports the November ballot question that would prevent the gas tax from rising with inflation; she opposes it — but neither has proposed major tax cuts or increases that could expose them to criticism.

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Coakley has not called for any tax-related changes but said she would not rule out increases in the event of a budget crisis that threatened funding for schools, health care, roads and bridges, and other basic services.

“In that situation, I would look to revenue options that do not increase the burden on those in the middle class and those who can least afford it,” she said in a written response to a series of tax-related questions that the Globe sent to her and to the four other candidates for governor.

Baker promised to hold the line on taxes and said he would reduce the state’s 5.2 percent income tax rate to 5 percent “as quickly as possible.” But he did not release a specific plan to make that happen.

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He called for more modest changes, such as an increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax credit that helps low-wage workers. He also wants to gradually phase out a tax on business inventory, which he says encourages companies to move jobs out of state, and exempt businesses that make less than $500,000 from the state corporate tax.

“I do see great opportunity to make reforms to our tax code, making it simpler, fairer and removing corporate loopholes,” he wrote in his response to the Globe.

Those targeted proposals represent a shift for the former budget chief in the Weld and Cellucci administrations who is known for his intricate knowledge of state finances.

When he ran for governor in 2010, Baker campaigned on a more aggressive plan to slash the corporate, income, and sales tax rates to 5 percent, arguing it would help revive the economy. He also vowed to trim state government by laying off 5,000 employees and cutting the number of health and human services agencies.

Defending his decision to back away from those plans in this campaign, he said, “Massachusetts is facing a different set of economic realities with the national economy on the rebound.”

In 2010, those proposals were condemned by Democrats, who said they would force cuts across a range of vital services.

These days, Baker vows to block tax hikes.

“I’ve said repeatedly that I will not raise taxes, the attorney general will,” he wrote.

Coakley has not proposed any tax increases, but she has sought higher spending on education and economic programs.

Her agenda calls for $100 million in grants and $400 million in infrastructure funding for regions across the state; an extended school day, beginning in midsized cities such as Fitchburg and Brockton; and guaranteed prekindergarten statewide.

Baker pointed to studies suggesting those programs could cost $3 billion and argued they would require a tax increase.

Coakley rejected Baker’s figures and said her plans would not require higher taxes. But she said she did not have her own cost estimates or a plan to pay for her initiatives.

“We know there’s a price tag to it,” she told reporters on Friday. “I can’t think of anything in Massachusetts that’s more important . . . We will find a way to pay for it.”

Pressed for specifics, she said she would try to squeeze efficiencies from government “and then we will address if we need to do any revenue-raising.”

“We’ve said all along — every Democrat has said this — we’re not afraid to make the case, if we need to do it,” she said. “But we need to make the case, and we need to get the public on board with that. I don’t believe we need to do that.”

Baker and Coakley sharply disagreed on the ballot question to repeal the state law that increases the gas tax based on changes in the Consumer Price Index. Baker praised the repeal effort.

“If the Legislature wants to raise taxes on those least able to afford it, they should be required to take a public position by casting their votes,” he wrote.

Coakley’s campaign said she opposes the ballot question.

“Martha supports the indexing provision recently passed by the Legislature because it is critical to funding needed repairs and improvements to our transportation infrastructure, much of which is crumbling after decades of underinvestment,” her campaign wrote.

Former business executive Evan Falchuk, an independent candidate, said a candidate who is serious about education, health care, or services for seniors and veterans cannot rule out tax increases in the event of a fiscal crisis. “Any leader or candidate who tries to skirt this fact is just not being candid with voters. Period,” he wrote.

Falchuk said he would cut corporate tax breaks and lower taxes for small businesses while increasing taxes on certain luxury items like yachts and high-end cars and installing tolls at state border crossings, to pay for road and bridge repair. He also said he would push for a constitutional amendment to allow for a graduated income tax, which would raise rates for the wealthy and cut them for middle- and lower-income earners.

“A tax code fundamentally based on ideas from the early 20th century does not fit the realities of a 21st century economy,” he wrote.

Venture capitalist Jeff McCormick, another independent candidate, said he would not raise taxes in a budgetary emergency. “Raising taxes in times of fiscal crisis is a dangerous way to manage a budget,” he wrote.

Like Baker, he said he would eliminate the state tax on business inventory. He also said he would raise the personal exemption from $4,400 to $5,000 for individuals, double historic tax credits to encourage redevelopment, and raise income limits to allow more seniors to qualify for state relief from their property taxes.

A third independent candidate, Scott Lively, an antigay pastor, said he would all but rule out tax hikes. “I can’t conceive of any situation outside of the most extreme emergency that would justify tax increases in Massachusetts,” he wrote.

He said he would remove tolls, end tax breaks for corporations and for the film industry, and roll the income tax rate back to 5 percent. He did, however, propose one tax increase, on genetically modified foods.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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