John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and is an adjunct professor of economics at Bentley University, contributes the following column
The state of Massachusetts bucked the national trend in the 2010 elections. While most states were trending “red,” Massachusetts preserved its’ “blue” identity. The mistake in reading these results is to assume that confirms Massachusetts is a liberal state. Public policy defines liberalism, not political party affiliation.
In addition to electing democrats to all the statewide offices, and electing an entirely democratic delegation to the United States House of Representatives, we still have democrats in firm control of both state houses. However, in many cases the policies adopted by our blue legislature, and blue Governor, are far from liberal
Tax policy says a lot about how liberal a government is. In The Conscience of a Conservative, Senator Barry Goldwater said: “government has a right to claim an equal percentage of each man’s wealth, and no more” (author’s emphasis). In Massachusetts, we fall far short of this conservative goal.
Massachusetts is one of only seven states that have a personal income tax without progressive rates. The state taxes your income at 5.3 percent whether you make $40,000 or $400,000 or $4 million. A progressive income tax is necessary to offset other taxes that are regressive – where low-income earners people pay more of their income than the wealthy.
In Massachusetts, the personal income tax represents only about one-third of state and local tax revenue. We rely heavily on regressive sales and property taxes. Overall, the tax structure of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is very regressive. Low-income earners pay taxes at a rate twice as high as the wealthy. Massachusetts may be blue, but a regressive tax structure is not liberal.
If it were not for a dispute over slots at racetracks, things would have been much worse. We rely heavily on lottery income, which while not officially labeled a tax, is extremely regressive. The democratic governor and democratic legislature came very close to expanding state-sponsored gambling by approving casinos. House Speaker DeLeo promised to try again in the new legislative session. Not what you should expect from a so-called liberal state.
In addition to going blue in 2010, the voters of Massachusetts approved making Massachusetts the only state to not apply a sales tax to alcoholic beverages. Voters were apparently willing to ignore the social costs incurred by consumption of these products.
Actually, I could argue that approving the exemption for alcohol was the more liberal position. Most people associate liberalism with government intervention. In this case, voters decided they thought government is smart enough to intervene and give one industry special treatment with respect to what is supposed to be a general sales tax.
Inequality in the United States is more severe than it ever has been. In The Conscience of a Liberal, Senator Paul Wellstone observed that there is a very high correlation between wealth status and educational success, and between resources allocated and success.
Education is the great equalizer. Improving education, from early childhood through the university system, is essential in promoting both economic growth and making sure more people benefit from the growth.
Massachusetts cut higher education funding by an inflation-adjusted 18 percent over the last decade — more than any other state. Massachusetts now ranks 45th in the nation on how much of our state budget is invested in higher education. Tuition and fees in the UMass system have doubled in the last decade. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education graded Massachusetts an “F” on affordability. Meanwhile, our blue legislature refuses to extend in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants even though it would increase revenues for the state and lead to significant increases in earning capacity.
Massachusetts may be democratic-blue but we showed our true colors in how state government responded to the recession. My brother lost his job last year. That might not seem unusual, especially given he worked in the Fall River-New Bedford area where the unemployment rate was over 18 percent. However, his job was helping people find jobs. During a severe recession with very high unemployment, the state cut job placement programs.
The next big litmus test will be how the state handles a projected $2 billion budget shortfall. The blue Governor, the blue Speaker of the House and the blue Senate President all say they have no plan to raise taxes.
Increasing tax rates might not be a good idea right now. However, the state could generate up to $1 billion in new revenue by closing tax loopholes. For example, the film industry tax credit will cost the state an estimated $125 million this year, and return very little. We cut job programs but we make sure Mark Wahlberg gets a nice parting gift after spending a few days here filming.
Instead of closing loopholes, the democrats on Beacon Hill will slash human services budgets – again. They may cut local aid — again. Spending on education will take another hit.
Then Senator John F. Kennedy said “if by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs…” then he was proud to be called a liberal. If you are that kind of liberal, if you care about the common wealth, the policies of our Democratic Party-controlled Commonwealth of Massachusetts should have you seeing red.
Last year Governor Patrick said he would like to see a progressive income tax but that it would take a multiyear campaign. We re-elected him for another 4-year term. Now is a good time to remind him that if he cares about the welfare of the people, the democratic leadership needs to look ahead and welcome “new” and progressive ideas.