Thursday, August 17, 2006

Winning On Property Tax Relief

Andy blogged about how Virginia Buckingham of the Boston Herald scribed in her latest dish her fear that Deval Patrick could be the candidate to topple Republicandom in a general election facing Kerry Healey. I think she's right, but others may disagree. In any event, that's not what this blog is going to be about. Andy, rhetorically or otherwise, asked readers just how Democrats will 'take away' the Republican anti-tax line that appeals to so many (stupid?) people.

I say Deval Patrick's already doing it, but maybe not doing it quite well enough. Democrats will need to hammer Healey on property taxes and local aid. Because of the income tax cuts that have already taken place in Massachusetts, cities and towns weren't getting the money they desperately needed for years. Now, we're finally approaching the levels we had pre-tax cuts. However, it's difficult to tell if we'll have the financial resources in future years we've recently enjoyed, especially with people leaving the state for more affordable housing and better job opportunities.

While municipal services have been cut, most affluent towns pass Proposition 2 ½ overrides every other year - just to keep up with rising pension and healthcare costs. Still, most of these towns have had to layoff teachers and force families to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars so their kids could join the Cheerleading Squad or the Art Club. Even Swampscott, an extremely wealthy, coastal community, almost banned sports and activities because of budget woes. What’s worse is that the cities and towns thacouldn'tdn’t afford to pass overrides ever year were left far, far behind.

Republican leadership in Massachusetts squandered a budget surplus, forced teacher layoffs all across the state and forced many of those same towns to raise property taxes by thousands of dollars. Do people want this type of leadership - the bad kind- to continue? Absolutely not.

Still, though, there is a large contingent - even (especially?) among Democrats - who cannot resist the urge of tax-cuts. So how do we squash Kerry Healey, whoÂ’s already spending millions on TV bolstering her tax-cut-and-spend credentials? Well, duh, property taxes. But a lot of people are going to say thatÂ’s vague. How does the state control local property taxes?

Valid point. Luckily, I have an idea. What if Democrats were to come up with a plan, a plan that would be the first bill theyÂ’d pass as Governor? TheyÂ’d set up a two-tier system of local aid: those that sign on and those that donÂ’t. Every city and town that signs on will receive priority local aid in an amount that would account for increases in Special Education costs, pension and healthcare rises and other annual cost increases that have been the reason towns have needed overrides these past few years. However, in order to receive additional local aid, these towns must also agree to not raise property taxes while theyÂ’re signed on (with perhaps some exceptions, such as a crumbling school that the state says needs to be improved during the accreditation process).

Not all the kinds are worked out, but at the very least itÂ’s a start. The plan demands fiscal discipline, smart spending - and, most importantly - responsible leadership via a Dem in the Corner Office. It will also demonstratably reduce the local property tax, which is one of the least progressive taxes there is.

At the very least people will be able to see how the plan works. Democrats saying they'll reduce local property taxes is neither believable nor inherently honest without a tangible plan: there's no way to control town spending at the state level. While liberals such as myself are ecstatic over Deval's stance - it's responsible, will lead to overall reductions in property taxes and is thoroughly progressive - people who love their tax cuts aren't going to just take Deval's word for it, not without an easy to follow plan showing just how it'll benefit their pocketbooks.

The reality is that if towns had more money, theyÂ’d spend that money - or at least a lot of it. We can increase local aid all we want and we'll be getting lots of extra programs that while nice, may not be sustainable. Years from now, when the budget is really scary again, weÂ’ll be facing the same layoffs and budget cuts. In order to make a compelling property-tax argument, Democrats need something voters can direbenefiting benefitting them far more than a straight income-tax rollback... and the plan needs to be responsible, unlike the income tax rollback. It won't hurt towns: it's meant to help them (via increased funds). However, it not only demands accountability, it will result in lower property taxes for years to come.

Eventually, the plan could help property taxes become the next sales tax: something small and petty that people don't think much about. And asdisproportionatelyoportionally hurts working and middle class people, that'd be a great outcome.

My plan is a foil between responsible government and Republican leadership. It contrasts fiscal discipline with tax-cumortgagingd morgtaging of the future. Furthermowoudln't plan wouldn’t box towns into sodidn'ting they didn’t want... towns that want to live and die on Proposition 2 ½ can feel free to continue to do so. They just won’t receive as much local aid as the towns that sign on (though, I wouldn't cut their aid either). Quite frankly, the plan only assures residents that towns won't go nuts with their increased local aid. Most importantly, in terms of political consequence, residents will actually see something tangible out of this seemingly metaphorical property tax vs. income tax debate going on in the Democratic primary.

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