Ballot questions pose challenge for budget

Shelly Runyon | 10/26/2010, 7:18 p.m.

Next Tuesday, voters will have the option to vote on three ballot measures that may greatly impact the Massachusetts budget if they pass. Advocates for all three measures promise increased personal budgets and spending ability, while opponents warn that thicker wallets may come at the expense of the state’s essential programs including substance abuse treatment, housing and education.

Question 1: Sales tax on alcoholic beverages

This ballot measure would remove the existing sales tax on alcoholic beverages and alcohol, only if it has been previously subject to state excise tax.

Proponents of this measure urge a YES vote, arguing that this tax is a double-tax since all alcohol is already subject to an excise tax: Spirits are now taxed at a rate of $4.05 per gallon; table wine is taxed at $0.55 per gallon; and beer is taxed at $0.11 per gallon.

According to The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research foundation based in Washington, D.C., 29 states have a higher alcohol excise tax compared to Massachusetts. As it is now, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon are the only states that do not charge sales-tax on top of excise tax.

New Hampshire has reportedly seen increased sales of alcohol since this law went into effect in 2009, at the expense of in-state stores across the border.

Opponents to this measure urge a NO vote, arguing that the tax is directly tied to behavioral health programs including alcohol and substance abuse prevention and rehabilitation. This tax now  generates $110 million per year, providing assistance to 100,000 Massachusetts residents.

Opponents also argue that the potential loss in revenue is only part of the problem. “The alcohol tax serves as a deterrent to underage drinking,” said Deborah Milbauer, public health consultant with Roxbury/Jamaica Plain Substance Use Coalition, “the more alcohol costs, the less youth have access to it.”

In effect, Question 1 opponents argue, an alcohol tax can be a preventative measure against the problems that stem from underage drinking, including a higher likelihood of substance abuse in adults.

Question 2: Comprehensive permits for low- or moderate-income housing

This ballot measure would end a law that allows organizations who apply to build government-subsidized housing to apply for one comprehensive permit from a city or town’s zoning board of appeals (ZBA). As it is now, separate permits from each agency overseeing the housing-project.

Proponents of this measure urge a YES vote, arguing that the comprehensive permits system for low- or moderate-income housing, otherwise known as Chapter 40B, is broken.

Leading the campaign against 40B is Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan. His interest in 40B housing began in 2006 during a year-long review of seven communities in Massachusetts where 40B properties were approved.

He testified before the Massachusetts House of Representatives in October 2007, sharing his findings of nepotism in the ZBA review process, misappropriation of funds and lack of oversight. He found five of seven communities had “significant problems” costing more than $4 million in taxpayer dollars.

Sullivan further explained that the largest problem is that the bank and the developer together determine the size of the project and the size of the profits for each project. The developer chooses the certified CPAs who audit the project, and the state rarely audits these projects.