Tax Limitation

The success last December of the petition drive in Massachusetts for a tax limitation referendum should inspire libertarian activists in other states. With slightly over 10,000 signatures at the beginning of October, the Citizens for Limited Taxation filed 86,771 certified signatures on December 7. Only 55,644 certified signatures were required, but the extra margin is important when one considers the difference between a signature and a "certified signature." In states, like Massachusetts, which require verification of name and address and signature, unfriendly government clerks can foil a petition drive by scratching out enough names. Massachusetts is a particularly difficult state to petition in.

It is also the second most heavily taxed state in the country. Only two states, Mississippi and Vermont, have a smaller per capita income after taxes, and only New York has higher state and local taxes. Considering the general bias in favor of government in Massachusetts, the only state to go for McGovern in 1972, the debate over tax limitation will prove very fruitful between now and 1980. The referendum must next receive an affirmative vote by 25 percent of the legislature in the next two sessions before a popular vote will be allowed. The extended period for public discussion and debate should help the cause, since previous attempts in California, Michigan, Colorado and Florida to limit the government failed due to propaganda and distortions at the last minute by opponents.

The Citizens for Limited Taxation, 73 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02108, did a number of things right. Libertarians who believe something can be accomplished via the political process might take CLT as a case study. The Director of the organization is Edward F. King, a prospective candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1979. The person whom insiders agree is primarily responsible for CLT's organizational success, however, is Donald Feder. Feder is active in the Massachusetts Libertarian Party and was the founder of the Association of Libertarian Lawyers a few years ago. The decision to place King at the head of the organization guaranteed a degree of credibility in the news media and state legislature which could not have been obtained if Feder had been nominal chief. Ed King was instrumental in the 1972 and 1976 defeat of a proposal to change the Massachusetts income tax from a flat rate to a graduated tax.

Like many states, Massachusetts has many local citizen groups which rise up to fight school bond issues, property tax hikes, and other local issues. The CLT set about to bring these local groups into a federation which would collect the necessary signatures, and form the decentralized nuclei of lobbying to assure the 25 percent legislative vote later this year and next. The major tax increases in the past few years have been in the local property taxes, not the statewide taxes. The successful linking of the local tax issue and the state tax limitation drive was an important achievement, especially considering that the previous campaigns in California and Michigan foundered on the argument that a limit to statewide taxes would put the full burden of "necessary" public sector growth on the local property tax. In those states the last-minute politicking by the public school teachers unions actually persuaded a majority of the voters that the tax limitation amendments would cause an increase in the tax burden. Voters interviewed following the elections who voted against the amendments said that they believed they were voting for lower taxes.


The petition campaign is only the first step in an overall strategy. Several CLT activists are planning to run for office on the tax issue. One man, John Doherty of Watertown, was elected to a local government body on the strength of a door-to-door campaign which stressed his CLT activism, and emphasized the theory that tax limitation is the starting point for economic growth. Another supporter, Anthony Conte of Revere, received 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race for State Senate in a district registered 8 to 1 Democratic. Because the number of state legislative districts is being reduced in Massachusetts next year, the situation is very fluid and many incumbents are in jeopardy because of new district boundaries.

The list of State Senators and State Representatives who have joined the endorsers of CLT is impressive and increasing. Boston City Council President Joseph Tierney was a petition circulator, as were a number of state legislators. The willingness of professional politicians to expose themselves on the issue is a measure of its strength. Interestingly enough, the business establishment does not support the amendment idea. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the "respectable" representative of the taxpayer, is lukewarm. One might almost suspect a perverse undercurrent in the Bay State. The real battle is yet to come, of course. Massachusetts is one of the unfortunate states with public employee unions and collective bargaining. The tax limitation amendment, if adopted, would put the entire process under a new set of competitive rules: instead of the organized, concentrated interests ganging up on the taxpayers at large, they would have to fight among themselves for a fixed share of the pie. That's the whole idea, naturally.

Libertarians often seem to have an ideological problem relating to an issue, such as tax limitation, which starts with the premise that the government and the power to tax are here to stay. In Massachusetts, however, many libertarians contributed to the success of the petition drive. The skill of putting together a coalition movement around single issues is one which libertarians need to develop.