GOD HAS inflicted many punishments on the people of Massachusetts. Ted Kennedy. Michael Dukakis. Cambridge. The Green Line.
But those plagues will be as nothing next to the agonies awaiting Bay Staters if the good lord lets Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government go out of business.
CLT, as it is known to friend and foe, is one of the great redoubts of the national tax revolt that burst out of California in the 1970s. Founded in 1974, within two years it had collected its first scalp, crushing a ballot initiative to replace Massachusetts's flat-rate income tax with a scheme of graduated rates. ("That's when the harder you work," CLT explained, "the more they take away.") Eighteen years later, when a gaggle of welfare statists and public sector unions pushed a graduated income tax onto the ballot once again, CLT crushed it once again.
Its finest hour came in 1980. Massachusetts was cracking under the highest tax burden in America. From the governor's office on down, the state was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. Malaise ran deep. And then came CLT, just a-walkin' down the street, with a prescription for tax relief that rocked the establishment: Proposition 2 1/2.
It slashed property taxes. Slashed the auto excise tax. Slashed the income tax for renters. In return, Proposition 2 1/2 was slashingly attacked by the press and the politicos. Fires would burn out of control, voters were warned, because there would be no fire departments to stop them. Sick people would die for lack of hospitals to treat them. Schools would close. The dead would go unburied. If Prop 2 1/2 became law, declared the Massachusetts League of Cities and Towns — one of many such prophesies, and far from the most hysterical — "it would effectively wipe out government."
On Election Day, Proposition 2 1/2 won by a landslide, 59-41. And CLT, with its tiny staff and its army of volunteers, had become a force to reckon with.
In the 1980s, CLT and its members were the closest thing Massachusetts had to a functioning opposition party. It had one loyalty, and that was to the taxpayers; one priority, and that was tax relief. In 1986, it forced the repeal of the Dukakis income surtax. In 1987, it killed the Legislature's gluttonous pay raise — the third raise in eight years, and a greedy 37 percent to boot.
As Dukakis ran for president, the state's economy disintegrated. Red ink bled all over Beacon Hill, but the Democrats refused to trim the budget. Instead, they jacked up taxes, raising the income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.75 percent, then again to 6.25 percent. A few honest legislators protested, but it was CLT that declared war — and especially CLT's incorruptible, irrepressible executive director, Barbara Anderson. She vowed that her organization would put the tax hikes before the voters, giving them the chance to undo the Legislature's damage. Sure enough, CLT got a tax rollback on the ballot in November 1990; it appeared as Question 3.
But this time the voters said no. CLT suffered its first major defeat. On the other hand, it rejoiced in the election of a Republican governor who had supported Question 3. William Weld promised CLT he would never sign any law that raised taxes or weakened Prop 2 1/2, and (by and large) he proved true to his word.
Now CLT has stumbled again. Its second attempt to roll back the 1989-90 tax hikes has failed. This time it couldn't even muster enough signatures to get to the ballot. Like locusts, the government employee unions — especially the rapacious Massachusetts Teachers Association — swarmed all over CLT's petition sheets, challenging signatures for any reason, however minute and preposterous. Outspent and outgunned, CLT's four staffers couldn't defeat the unions' army of lawyers and deep pockets: They wound up 26 signatures short.
But what of CLT's own army — the grass-roots activists, the ticked-off taxpayers? Its membership has dwindled in recent years from 18,000 to 9,000. The voters who used to line up at shopping malls to sign CLT's tax-cut petitions now brush past Barbara Anderson and her volunteers. "No, thanks, I'm all set," they mutter when asked if they'd like to help lower their own taxes. The callers to radio talk shows who used to chew up the lines in a fury over arrogant politicians now prefer to share Viagra jokes.
So Anderson and her co-director, Chip Ford, are thinking of closing up shop. Their passion for limited taxation and honest government is at hot as ever, but if the public no longer cares when the state rips them off, who needs CLT?
They are surveying their members and asking the public for advice. Keep punching, or hang up the gloves? Keep pushing the Legislature to return some of the state's abundant revenue to the citizens who earned it, or let Beacon Hill's insiders do as they please? Keep telling the truth, or abandon the field to the liars?
Anderson and Ford are funny, blunt, hard-headed, cheerful, and idealistic. They work 14 hours a day and pay themselves all of $369 a week. They are two of the most selfless allies Massachusetts voters have ever had. But they can't keep running on fumes. They need to know they've got some support, and they need some money to cover the rent. It costs $25 a year to join CLT. The phone number is 617-248-0022.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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