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CLT Emerges as Campaign Touchstone

By Chip Cummins

Last week's primaries did more than just eliminate two of the four candidates vying to relieve Gov. Michael S. Dukakis at the helm of the Massachusetts ship of state. It also threw overboard a number of the signal flags that had separated one party from another in the campaign's early days.

On the subject of abortion, both Democratic nominee John R. Silber and his Republican opponent, former U.S. attorney William F. Weld '66, describe themselves as avidly prochoice. Both maintain they are fiscal conservatives who can rescue the state from its budget crisis by trimming government waste. And each says he can do this without cutting vital services to the state's most needy residents.

In the absence of any stark differences between the two candidates on these concerns, a ballot referendum proposed by Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT) has emerged as the touchstone of the campaign.

Weld has voiced strong support for the petition, which would roll state taxes and fees back to their June 1988 levels. The Cambridge Republican says it is the only way Massachusetts can force the legislature to cut the deadwood from the state's budget and save it from fiscal ruin.

Silber counters that the CLT petition, which will appear as Question 3 on the November ballot, would be state-sponsored suicide, a move that would cut an estimated $2 billion in revenue from the Massachusetts budget. Supporters say Silber, now on leave as president of Boston University, can use his well-honed administrative skills to trim the $2 billion in a more gradual and humane way.

"I think it's going to be a cutting edge issue," said Michael Goldman, a political consultant who worked for Lt. Gov. Evelyn F. Murphy during her campaign for the corner office.

Support for the petition was high shortly after the primary last week, according to a poll by The Boston Globe which showed supporters of the CLT petition leading opponents by 16 percentage points. More recent polls, however, have shown that gap closing.

A Cry of Anger

The CLT petition was born from the same public anger that put Proposition 2 1/2 on the books almost a decade ago. Approved by almost 60 percent of voters in a 1980 referendum, Prop 2 1/2 set a limit on the amount of revenue a city or town can raise through property taxes and puts a cap on the annual property tax increase for that city or town.

But opponents of the CLT petition--among them many state legislators--say that with today's budget deficit, now estimated at anywhere from $700 million to $2 billion, the state cannot afford to lose the revenue Question 3 could take away.

"I think it would be disastrous," said State Sen. Michael LoPresti '70 (D-Boston). "Many, many people would be hurt."

"Every program you could think of, from students to the elderly, will be hurt," LoPresti said.

But LoPresti said the legislature is currently hesitant about developing an alternative to the CLT petition, saying that lawmakers are waiting to see the results of the ballot referendum.

If voters reject the petition, the legislature will have leverage to reorganize expensive state accounts and make gradual, sensible cuts in the budget, LoPresti said. If voters embrace the measure on the November ballot, LoPresti said legislators are unsure what will happen.

"If CLT passes, we're afraid of chaos," he said.

'Something is Wrong'

CLT representatives, however, say the cuts the petition would cause could be easily absorbed by the vastly inflated state budget.

"Let them run the state on $12.4 billion," said Chip Faulkner, an assistant director of CLT. "If they can't do that, something is drastically wrong."

But because much of the state's budget consists of entitlement programs whose funding is required by law, many of the cuts required by the CLT petition would concentrate on the state's most vital service programs, said Paul Watanabe, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

These non-entitlement programs include local aid to the 351 cities and towns of Massachusetts along with state-funded higher education programs.

Local government officials are already restricted by Prop 2 1/2 from raising revenue for local services such as trash collection and snow removal.

If the CLT petition passes, these officials fear cuts will be made in the state's $2.8 billion local aid budget, causing some local government offices--already crippled by aid cuts in the last two years--to close down completely.

Last year, more than 180 of the state's cities and towns had some type of Prop 2 1/2 override question on the ballot, signaling to public policy analysts and state legislators at the time that these local governments were under considerable financial stress.

"We believe if the state has to cut, it will cut local aid," said Sheila Cheimets, the executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Cheimets said that while her staff is still compiling hard numbers on the effect the CLT petition will have on local aid, she believes local cuts could be as much as 20 to 25 percent, affecting the most basic services.

"Any of the numbers I've seen are very scary," Cheimets said.

The setbacks these cities and towns may be forced to endure could affect residents for almost a decade, Cheimets said.

No 'Profiles in Courage'

House Majority Leader Charles F. Flaherty (D-Cambridge), who will likely succeed George Keverian '53 (D-Everett) as speaker of the House, has some alternatives if the CLT petition does pass in November.

One option would be simply to send through a new tax package after the CLT tax cuts become effective on January 1.

Flaherty helped Keverian draft a $2 billion tax package last year that failed to pass the House and is often thought to favor increased taxes as a solution to the state's budget crisis.

Political pressure, however, would keep legislators from acting too quickly against a CLT petition passage, said Watanabe.

"I don't see there will be a lot of profiles in courage on this particular issue," he said.

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