Hit the Books and Ride the Rails

Whenever Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ’78 gives a formal public address, the chances are good that he will mention Orchard Gardens School. Whether he is stumping for votes for President Obama, addressing the Democratic National Convention, or delivering the State of the Commonwealth address, Governor Patrick speaks with great pride and enthusiasm about the progress being made by the once-failing school he has chosen as his calling card.

Governor Patrick has made his commitment to education known at every available opportunity, and he has argued passionately for the opportunity and growth that education provides, not just as an end within itself, but as a means to achieve economic growth, progress, and excellence. This is reflective of the governor’s wider message: Through targeted development in sectors that form the foundation of our economy like education and infrastructure, Massachusetts can amplify its economic growth and recovery and its ability to compete on a regional and national scale.

It should be no surprise, then, that in his State of the Commonwealth address, delivered on January 16, and in his subsequent budget proposal, Governor Patrick argued for a new economic strategy centered on “education, innovation, and infrastructure.” In order to see this strategy to fruition, the governor’s budget proposal calls for a $1.5 billion increase in funding for education and transportation as well as increased local aid for the coming fiscal year. That is where the controversy comes in: To pay for the budget increases, Governor Patrick has proposed increasing the income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent while simultaneously lowering the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4 percent to generate around $1 billion in net revenue.

To many Massachusetts residents who know the Commonwealth by the less-than-savory moniker “Taxachussetts,” the income tax increase is an unwelcome imposition. Critics of the plan argue that the tax hike adversely affects workers and families in a barely recovering economy. However, the merits of the plan are plain, as the proposed spending increases are designed to boost economic growth, equalize the tax burden, and elevate quality of living for the state overall. The plan’s benefits and the strategies it employs would mitigate the ill-effects of the income tax hike and would provide much needed improvements to the state now and in the future.

The most obvious benefit of the governor’s plan is the direct impact it has on education, transportation, and local aid. The budget proposal includes a $226 million increase in general education aid as well as a $112 million increase in state scholarships. This education funding is vital to preserving and advancing the progress made by Massachusetts K-12 schools and to making college more accessible to students regardless of their socioeconomic background. Not only is this beneficial to low-income students and schools across the state, but the funding increase also fosters future economic growth, first by better equipping students to work in a competitive, high-level economy, and second, by sending more students to local universities and increasing the likelihood that workers with a higher degree will stay in state.

The transportation component of the governor’s plan is similarly impactful. Under Governor Patrick’s plan, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will extend services to 2 a.m. The plan also calls for passenger rail service to Springfield and the Berkshires, with an extension of commuter rail services to New Bedford and Fall River, a much-needed addition that connects the state and makes the system more accessible to a greater number of Massachusetts residents. Additionally, unrestricted aid to local cities and towns would increase by $40 million and could promote local growth, help still-recovering communities, and support infrastructure improvements, all vital to elevating the state’s overall growth and national standing.

Critics acknowledge that the benefits of Governor Patrick’s plan are appealing, but dispute that they are worthy of an income tax increase that could potentially harm families still recovering from the economic downturn. These claims are less than strong given the design of the governor’s tax plan, which aims to reduce the ill-effects of a tax increase by simplifying and equalizing the tax code so it better reflects ability to pay. In addition to cutting the sales tax, which is naturally regressive, the plan reduces the costs its income tax hike will inflict on low-income earners by doubling the personal income tax exemption. It also eliminates some corporate tax breaks, plus 45 other income tax deductions. These measures would serve to make the tax code more equitable and reduce the burden on families who are unable to pay a higher share of taxes.

Fundamentally, the governor’s plan is about equality—equality of access to basic services, equality of tax burdens, and ultimately, equality of opportunity for us and for the generations that follow. Given the limited burden of the tax increases and improvements to the tax code as well as the lasting impact of the governor’s proposed funding allocations, the budget offers legislators the opportunity to shape the Commonwealth’s economic future in the short-term as well as the long-term.

In the midst of a still-new and uncertain recovery, it is natural to focus only on the present, and certainly the number one priority should be ensuring that we do not slip back into a recession or into intractable debt. But it is just as vital, if not more so, that we focus on our future.

Riley K. Carney ’15 is a Government concentrator in Eliot House.

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