Both sides gear up for fight on income tax repeal

Associated Press | 8/20/2008, 5:07 a.m.

Supporters and opponents of the ballot question regarding the elimination of the statewide income tax are gearing up for a fight for votes this fall, raising money and rounding up volunteers.

While neither side will say how much money they’ve raised or spent so far this year — they’ll have to disclose both early next month — both campaigns say they’re confident they’ll have enough to make their case to the public.

“We will have what we believe is necessary to defeat this reckless proposal,” said Steve Crawford, a chief strategist for Gov. Deval Patrick and spokesman for the Boston Teachers Union. Crawford is helping organize the opposition to the question.

Crawford says opponents don’t plan to make the same mistake they did six years ago when the question was first placed on the ballot. Back then, critics largely ignored the question, which was defeated by a narrow margin.

This time a coalition of unions, businesses, and civic groups are planning a full-on campaign against the measure.

“People have learned their lesson from the last time,” Crawford said. “We understand that people are frustrated with the economy, frustrated with the situation with foreclosures and the price of gasoline. We are concerned that that frustration might be reflected at the ballot box.”

Supporters of the question are also aware that times have changed since 2002.

They hope the state’s squishy economy, rising energy costs and lingering jitters over the foreclosure crisis — combined with overall skepticism about state government — will provide fertile territory for a voter revolt.

Carla Howell, chairwoman of the Committee For Small Government, wouldn’t say how much money the group has on hand to push the initiative, but said they’ll be able to make their case, although she said she expects to be outspent.

“People are hurting in this state. The economy is still in rough shape and that is going to motivate people to vote yes on Question One,” she said. “Clearly our opposition is going to outspend us considerably. We are hoping to raise as much as we can.”

The committee raised just over $203,000 during 2007 to help gather enough signatures to secure a slot on the November ballot.

An Associated Press review of campaign finance reports filed with the state found the group relied heavily on out-of-state donors. Of the $192,000 in itemized donations to the campaign, about $133,000, or 69 percent came from outside Massachusetts.

Some of the biggest donors hailed from as far away as California. Five individuals from California contributed a total of about $70,000.

Howell defended the out-of-state donations, saying the final decision will be in the hands of Massachusetts voters.

“All statewide campaigns have out-of-state donors,” she said.

The proposal would slash the state’s revenues, lopping off 40 percent of the money Massachusetts takes in each year, an $11 billion blow that would ripple throughout state government and, critics say, cripple its ability to deliver key services.

But backers say there’s a big upside.

Not only would state government learn to live on a leaner diet, they say, but taxpayers would give themselves about a $3,600 tax break — money they could spend as they see fit.

Recent polls suggest that neither side can afford to sit on their hands.

A WHDH-TV and Suffolk University poll conducted from July 31-Aug. 3 with 400 registered voters, found 50 percent opposed to the question, 36 percent in favor and 15 percent undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

A second poll conducted by WBZ-TV found a much tighter race.

When asked “Should Massachusetts continue to have a state income tax?” voters split nearly even, with 47 percent saying “yes” and 45 percent saying “no” — well within the poll’s 4.5 percent margin of error.

Massachusetts voters have a mixed history of approving tax cuts. They rejected the 2002 question, but in 2000 overwhelmingly backed a proposal to cut the state income tax from 5.95 percent to 5 percent over three years. Lawmakers eventually froze the rate at 5.3 percent.

(Associated Press)