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Senator Joseph R. Biden, trying his best not to become the next vice president of the United States, recently called paying taxes “patriotic.” Next Tuesday, Massachusetts voters will go to the polls to decide his fate—and the fate of patriotism itself. Ballot Question 1 asks Bay Staters simply: Should the commonwealth eliminate its income tax?
Opponents of the initiative dismiss it a “reckless idea,” but it is much more: Question 1 is a misguided measure that would undermine Massachusetts’ very existence. Even small-government advocates can agree that certain state-provided services are important. The state gives jobs to 68,000 employees; it maintains police departments and public schools; it keeps roads and bridges from crumbling. Yes, it would be great to give citizens a tax rebate, but Question 1 does it at the cost of all these benefits.
Like the nation, Massachusetts is already facing an economic crisis. Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 has already had to slash the state budget by $1 billion. The cuts—$9 million for law enforcement, $31.9 million in mental-health resources, 1,000 jobs—have sobered members of both political parties. Question 1 would only kick us while we’re down. Revenue from the income tax represents 40 percent of Massachusetts’ budget—without it, the state faces cuts of $12.5 billion.
Locals already know the devastating effects of spending cuts. For years, towns have had to contend with Proposition 2½, which caps property tax hikes at 2.5 percent. Unfortunately, costs rise at a much higher rate, so town electorates must pass Prop 2½ “overrides” to avoid deep cuts. When an override fails, nurses are laid off; schools close; 911 response times get longer. Question 1 would have the effect of several failed overrides per community—in all 351 communities in the commonwealth.
To cite some numbers, Cambridge would lose 86 percent of its state aid for education under Question 1. To reach the $12.5 billion mandate, Massachusetts would have to fire every state employee—and then cut $7.2 billion more. Question 1 supporters tell the undecided that the measure’s opponents are “indirectly funded by your tax dollars.” They’re right. Everyone in Massachusetts is indirectly funded by tax dollars—when they mail a letter, borrow books from the library, or visit a nearby state park.
Unlike other states without an income tax, Massachusetts has no way to make these numbers up—except, ironically, by raising other taxes, such as the property tax, which is already more painful than the income tax here. Otherwise, Massachusetts parents will just have to use their $3,700 average annual rebates to send their kids to private school; meanwhile, seniors can use it to pay for that big operation next month. Then again, $3,700 might not be enough.
And there’s the philosophical argument. It may not be the best campaign-trail one-liner, but paying taxes really is patriotic. They don’t just go toward broken welfare systems; they pay for the basic, simple services everyone takes for granted. Taxes sustain the livelihoods of millions of American workers. They support soldiers and firefighters and pay for our elections. They are the dues we pay to get goosebumps at the national anthem.
“Big government” isn’t the same thing as “spreading the wealth around,” yet this seems to be a resilient national attitude. This can’t surprise us, however—politicians have always run away from the “tax and spend” label, never arguing in its defense. There is a compelling and compassionate case for taxation. Instead of apologizing for it, perhaps politicians should make it to the American people.
Nathaniel S. Rakich ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Cabot House.
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