West

The Argument: Should higher taxes be off the table in state budget talks?

Should higher taxes be off the table when legislators discuss next year’s state budget?

YES

Michael Kane

Ashland resident, business owner, and board member of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance

Michael Kane

The Boston Globe has reported the warning of a Beacon Hill watchdog group that in the upcoming fiscal year, Massachusetts revenues could exceed this year’s take by $1 billion. But as state Representative Brian S. Dempsey, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, was quick to comment, “the billion gets spoken for fairly quickly.”

Isn’t that the way it always is with budgets? No matter how much money pours in to the state’s coffers, bureaucrats will always find a way to spend it. In the upcoming legislative session, our state representatives and senators must make budget decisions based on the revenues we can count on. New taxes shouldn’t be an option.

Advertisement

The same Globe story went on to quote David Hitchcock, senior director with Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating agency. Hitchcock said, “I don’t think this is really a revenue problem for Massachusetts so much. There seems to be some unexpected spending issues.”

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

I couldn’t agree more with that analysis. Massachusetts’ economy is strong, and revenue is growing. The problem lies in how our state spends its money.

Overspending is rife throughout Massachusetts state government. We’ve learned much about the inner workings of the MBTA recently, thanks to a total collapse of the transit system last winter. Let’s look at what’s happening in that single agency as an example of how revenue is allocated.

According to reports, nearly one quarter of all MBTA employees are earning more than $100,000; two of them earn more than $300,000. And as of 2014, the MBTA had 5,726 active employees on its payroll and 6,371 retirees receiving benefits. Just think about that for a minute. The MBTA pays more people not to work than it does to work. That fact alone tells you quite a bit about how well the agency is spending our tax dollars.

The Legislature and the governor must keep tax increases off the table for next year. Until we are sure our dollars are managed wisely, any talk of tax increases would be an affront to the hardworking people of the Commonwealth.

NO

Bill Humphrey

Newton resident, member of the Newton Democratic City Committee and candidate for Governor’s Council

Bill Humphrey
Advertisement

In early 2015 and again last month, Democratic Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo promised that the House of Representatives would not pass budgets that involved new revenues of any kind. This goes beyond Governor Charles D. Baker’s Republican standard of no-new-taxes.

Anti-tax conservatives in both parties have been dominant for a full generation now. The unchallenged politics of tax cuts — and spending cuts to offset them — has become self-sustaining. There has been comparatively little defense of what spending actually means: programs and policies that deliver vital public services.

Speaker DeLeo, explaining his position, cited pre-existing pressures on family budgets. It’s true, many Massachusetts families have been struggling to get by. Unfortunately, further cuts likely will worsen that pressure.

Nobody disputes the importance of fiscal efficiency, but after decades of cuts there is virtually no fat left to trim in the state budget. Even the rainy day fund has been exhausted to plug other budget gaps. Without new revenues, even deeper cuts will necessarily be made in vital arenas that intersect directly with family budgets.

Transportation infrastructure, public education, economic development, social safety nets, our courts, and more are funded in large part or wholly by government spending. “Consolidating” services often means reduced access for citizens, particularly the most vulnerable. Cutting back public investment in these areas hurts families, costs good-paying public employee jobs, and shrinks the economy.

Advertisement

How we raise revenues most effectively and fairly is a good question – and a political one.

Our current state tax system is regressive. It shouldn’t be. The proposed Fair Share constitutional amendment would fund transportation and education via an additional millionaire’s tax on those whose family budgets won’t be broken by an extra contribution to our society’s shared coffers. Increased tax compliance by large corporations likewise would ease the burden on small businesses without access to offshore tax shelters.

What is not debatable – given our fiscal situation and our public investment needs – is that we need more revenues from somewhere. Taking revenue increases off the table is fiscally irresponsible and ultimately harmful to the very people the speaker says he wants to help.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.