The Sales Tax: Time For Action

Early in 1965 almost every significant political leader in Massachusetts agreed that the state needed more than $200 million in additional annual revenues. Now, twelve months later, the financial plight of the Commonwealth is even more pressing; yet these same leaders continue to bicker among themselves, unable to agree on an equitable tax plan to raise the vitally needed funds.

Approximately $110 million is needed to finance programs to which the state is already committed, notably in such important areas as mental health and education. The remaining money will be distributed among the cities and towns to hold down the astronomical rise of local property tax rates which has driven homeowners and investors out of the state. In order to retard the rapid increase in tax rates, municipal governments have had to cut back essential programs in health, education, and housing. Last month, for example, Mayor Collins declared: "We have tightened our belts to the breaking point."

The blame for the present crisis rests squarely with the legislature. It has forced program after program upon the already impoverished cities and towns without providing the money to pay for them. The efforts of enlightened leaders such as Mayor Collins to win either home rule or state aid to finance these programs have been continually rebuffed. The legislature and its leaders have been intransigent.

During the past year several solutions have been proposed: the Kenneally plan to raise $200 million through revisions in the income tax structure; Governor Volpe's three per cent limited sales tax; and a compromise plan designed to raise only $143 million that was patterned after the original Kenneally bill. All of the plans have been defeated at one time or another, but significantly, the Republican Governor's plan has fared far better, even in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Statewide polls have indicated that the sales tax is by an overwhelming margin the most popular method of raising new revenue.

In the face of the stinging defeats recently administered to the income tax revision plans, political experts across the state are now convinced that the only tax plan that can win approval is the Governor's. There are no longer any alternatives. The halfhearted manner in which House Speaker John F. X. Davoren (D-Milford) led the opposition to the latest sales tax proposal is characteristic of this new attitude. In the words of Rep. James H. Kelly (D-Boston), the leadership "was just going through the motions" in opposing the bill.

One man has prevented this bipartisan consensus from succeeding -- Senate President Maurice A. Donahue (D-Holyoke), archfoe of the sales tax and potential gubernatorial candidate in 1966. Donahue views the defeat of the sales tax as a matter of personal honor -- a vote for the tax is a vote for the incumbent Republican Governor and against himself. Appealing to his colleagues' personal loyalty, the powerful legislative leader has twice managed to defeat sales tax proposals that had passed the House. He may well be able to block the Governor's seventh proposal which cleared the House late Friday night.

Donahue has further obstructed the implementation of Governor Volpe's plan by introducing bogus issues into the so-called "Great Tax Debate." The sales tax, he maintains, is really a confrontation between rich and poor, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. And since Massachusetts voters are poor, Democratic, and liberal, the Senator is convinced that they favor his opposition to the bill.

But the issue is clearly nonpartisan, for the "Republican" plan has consistently been supported by a coalition composed in roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. The sales tax was first proposed almost ten years ago by former Democratic Governor Foster Furcolo, and its most vociferous supporter, next to the Governor himself, has been Collins -- a power in the state Democratic party. Furthermore, the bill is not one that pits liberal against conservative, for most of the state's liberals have either supported it, or out of personal loyalty to Donahue, remained discreetly silent. Finally, the bill is hardly a confrontation between rich and poor; it is a limited tax which exempts food, medicine, clothing, rent, fuel, utilities and other necessities and offers a credit to low income families.

The Governor's seventh sales tax proposal is now awaiting action by the State Senate. There is no need for further debate because the participants' positions and the will of the people are already all too apparent. Additional delay can only result in the intensification of the problems that both sides admit must be solved immediately. Donahue may still have the power to block passage of the measure, although the mood of the voters and the trend within the legislature is clearly against him. His choice is either to continue the selfish political maneuvering which has proved so destructive in the past twelve months or to face up to the problems which he should be helping to solve. We hope that the Senator will weigh the alternatives well.