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Question 3: A Prescription for Disaster

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

THAT an angry electorate could tempt itself with a drastic budget reform proposal like Question 3 on tomorrow's ballot should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Bay State politics for the past two years. By almost any measure imaginable, the state of Massachusetts in the year 1990 is an economic shambles, and nearly everyone--Democrat and Republican--realizes that something has to be done to clean up the mess.

The state's once thriving high-tech industry has stalled. Its bond rating is the lowest of any state in the union. And its state budget, once touted as a model of compentent management for the federal government to emulate, now faces a deficit estimated at anywhere from $700 million to $2 billion.

Question 3--a sweeping reform initiative sponsored by the Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT)--is a direct result of the tide of voter anger engendered by this sorry state of affairs. If passed, the referendum would roll back all state taxes and fees to their 1988 levels, thereby cutting forcing legislators to cuts more than $1 billion from the state budget. The goal is an admirable one; Massachusetts clearly needs to take concrete steps toward balancing its swollen budget deficit.

Question 3's objective is clear. Give the irresponsible legislators who created Massachusetts's outlandish budget deficit less money to do irresponsible things with. Sure the loss of revenues will exacerbate the state's already disastrous fiscal crisis. Good. Now those bums will have to do something.

This is demagogic, defeatist political thinking at its basest. Massachusetts is in the throes of a crisis. Maybe our legislators haven't learned that yet--and that's pathetic. But arbitrarily cutting taxes won't teach them that lesson, either. However, it will widen the state's appalling spending/revenue gap. It will put people out of work. It will put people on the streets. It will deprive people of quality police protection. CLT hurts people.

Massachusetts government has supported a host of wasteful programs that need to be trimmed immediately. It also has a host of absolutely vital programs that a tax cut would imperil. Massachusetts voters have a right to be angry. But a hysterical "That'll teach 'em" response would be even more irresponsible and could cripple state government for years to come. We emphatically endorse a NO vote on Question 3.

THE CLT tax rollback would have a direct and disastrous effect upon education throughout the state. And while public colleges would undoubtedly feel the brunt of the blow, private universities--Harvard among them--will also suffer.

In Massachusetts--the only state in the U.S. which has reduced funding for public education in the past two years--officials already expect that they will be forced to cut 19 percent from state education funds to ease the budget crisis. If CLT passes, that figure could jump to 38 percent, education officials estimate. Massachusetts now ranks 48th among the 50 states in per capita spending on education.

Public colleges are already reeling from their current fiscal constraints. Further reductions will make it nearly impossible for many institutions to maintain their libraries, teaching staffs and other vital needs. The inevitable result will be sharp increases in tuition, shutting the door of education in the faces of a growing number of state residents.

In addition, the referendum would devastate state financial aid funds for students at public and private colleges alike. According to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, 40 percent of state scholarship funds would be eliminated in a best case scenario. It is not inconceivable that the state would have to eliminate all scholarship funds.

Harvard officials concede that the direct impact of these cuts on the University would be minimal. But damage to other, less wealthy institutions, may be irreparable. In the words of President Derek C. Bok, who is spearheading an anti-CLT effort among university leaders, "Education is a seamless web. You can't just stand up when you're affected. You've got to help other people when they're affected."

BEYOND education, Question 3's passage would have a devastating impact on state and local programs that provide key services to thousands of Commonwealth residents.

In 1980, a storm of anti-tax fervor swept through Massachusetts, culminating in the passage of Proposition 2 1/2, which placed a cap on the amount of property taxes local governments could levy. Since that time, Massachusetts cities and towns have had to rely on a steady flow of of state aid to finance the most basic municipal services--including schools, hospitals, police and fire protection. Two summers ago, in a sweeping series of budget cuts, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis made it abundantly clear that local officials can no longer count on that aid.

Cambridge survived those cuts relatively unscathed--at least in comparison to other Massachusetts cities. Even so, the city officials have been forced to cut more than $5.1 million from their budgets and institute a citywide hiring freeze to help curb costs.

Other cities, their power to tax constrained by Proposition 2 1/2, found themselves squeezed between two immovable barriers: Dukakis' cuts and the referendum's levy limits. For Cambridge and the dozens of other towns at or near the Proposition 2 1/2 limits, passage of Question 3 would only exacerbate this already dangerous situation.

In effect, neither state or local governments would be able to raise the money that our cities and towns need to operate.

According to a report issued earlier this year by City Manager Robert W. Healy, Cambridge stands to lose at least $12.52 million should the CLT petition pass. A more likely scenario calls for cuts on the order of $25 million. Such a loss would devastate the most basic services that everyone in Cambridge--town and gown alike--now depends upon.

For Cambridge, the ultimate irony of the CLT petition is that it would not even result in lower taxes. Healy has told the City Council that the only way to compensate for the loss of funds would be to raise property taxes to the limit allowed by Proposition 2 1/2. For many city residents, that would mean an overall tax increase. And even with the property tax hike, the city will still face cutbacks in basic services by fiscal year 1993.

SUPPORTERS of the CLT petition are fond of ignoring these costs, arguing that the lower tax rate will bring enough new business into the state to turn the economy around. Such arguments betray a sad lack of concern for the thousands of Massachusetts residents whose lives and livelihoods would be devastated by the referenum's passage.

It also begs an obvious question: what kind of business will choose to operate in a state that allows its education system, police departments, fire departments, affordable housing programs and hospitals to be cut to the bone? CLT will drive away as much business as it attracts. No wonder numerous conservative business associations oppose its passage.

Drastic times often call for drastic measures. But not this drastic. No one should let anger win out over compassion and common sense tomorrow. Vote no on Question 3.

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