Dukakis Watch: Checking in at the "Last Resort"


It's a good thing Mother Teresa doesn't perform her good works in Massachusetts. By now, Gov. Michael Dukakis would probably be charging her a tax on every leper she rescued from the streets.

That may read like a bad joke, but here in the Bay State, it's reality. Late last year, the Dukakis administration unilaterally imposed a fee on anyone wishing a license to run a hospice, a home in which the dying can live out their last days in dignity. The more patients a hospice cares for, the higher the fee it must pay. (And keep on paying: the license has to be renewed biennially).

Actually, Dukakis and his team have been quite busy in the tax-and-fee department. (You do remember Michael Dukakis, don't you? He was the Competence Candidate…the governor who boasted about balancing "10 budgets in 10 years"…the guy—he always calls himself a "guy"—who must have said, oh, umpteen thousand times in 1988 that "new taxes ought to be a last resort, not a first resort.")

For instance, there's the new increase in fees levied on liquor wholesalers. Purveyors of alcoholic beverages saw their annual fee rise 20 percent ($5,000 to $6,000), as did those who deal only in wines and beers ($2,500 to $3,000). The rules are different, though, for those just dealing in sacramental wines: their annual fee has been hiked 100 percent.

So now you know what you missed out on, America: a chief executive who can squeeze taxes out of deathbeds and Holy Communion.

Don't get me wrong, though. It isn't just hospice directors and sacramental-wine importers. It's also banks opening a local branch (new fee: $500). Or closing an old one ($250). It's would-be landscape architects who now face a $35 fee when they apply to take the licensing exam—plus $200 more when they actually take it, and $50 more when they pass it. It's also barbers and psychologists, paint deleaders and drivers, nursing home administrators, jockeys, and greyhound trainers.

In fact, since the current fiscal year began last summer, and especially since Dukakis lost the election 40 states to 10, he has imposed or hiked more than 460 state fees and charges. 460! Why? To raise money, of course: upwards of $127 million in new revenue this fiscal year (when some of the fees will have been in place for fewer than 12 months), and as much as $250 million in the fiscal year—in all fiscal years—to come.

Dukakis justifies this tidal wave of fee-and-fine increases by claiming that such charges have averaged less in Massachusetts than in the nation as a whole and that it is accordingly time to raise them. Interestingly, during his presidential campaign, he had boasted that state fees were lower in Massachusetts—proof, he argued, of how competently he had managed his state. In any event, the rocketing fees are just one angle of Dukakis's current I'm-gonna-tax-the-spit-out-of-you crusade.

• In January, he unveiled a $735-million package of tax increases ($604 million on a permanent, yearly basis; $131 million in what's left of this fiscal year). Among other things, he called for a new tax on telephone calls and—proving that what Bush giveth, Dukakis taketh away—a doubling of the capital-gains tax.

• Last July, just before he flew to Atlanta and asked America to vote on competence, not ideology, Dukakis signed legislation raising other taxes and fees by some $200 million.

Add it all up, and Governor Last Resort turns out to be clamoring for a tax increase of well over $1 billion. Bush was right: when a pol talks about raising taxes only as a last resort, "you know that's one resort he's going to be checking in to."

Inasmuch as taxes in Massachusetts are already some 27 percent above the national average, ranking us fifth on the list of America's highest-taxed working stiffs, it may not surprise you to learn that Dukakis has become one of the commonwealth's least-liked officials. Nearly 53 percent of Democrats and independents rate his performance "unfavorable," according to the latest public opinion poll. Among Republicans, the figure is somewhere on the far side of 90.

Ah, but Dukakis has an answer for his critics. In an early-January State of the State address that was the most blisteringly vituperative speech that Beacon Hill old-timers could remember, he lashed out at those who would criticize his fiscal policies: "There will be screams from the chronic complainers and the gloom-and-doomers.…Well, I have a message for them tonight. Because they are the gutless wonders of Massachusetts politics, I'm not going to let them get away with it."

A few weeks later, appearing before the legislature's Joint Taxation Committee, Dukakis even more succinctly characterized opponents of his tax package: "I know people are crazy," he said. "I understand that."

If you thought there was something weirdly disconnected about Dukakis during the campaign last year, you ought to see him now. Politics-watchers mutter about how off-the-wall he's been, how nobody can talk to him anymore, how he doesn't seem to comprehend the extent to which the people of Massachusetts are repelled by him, his taxes, his dissembling, and his unbearably self-righteous smugness.

It's hardly surprising that Bay Staters have had it up to here with Dukakis. The Massachusetts Miracle and the man who loved to take credit for it on the campaign trail last year haven't been looking too healthy lately. For instance:

• After months of denying even the possibility of a state deficit, Dukakis finally admitted in December that a $633-million budget shortfall loomed.

• The state continues to hemorrhage manufacturing jobs at an alarming rate. Since April 1987, the United States has gained over 490,000 such jobs, but Massachusetts has lost over 17,000. In February, a GM plant in Framingham, Massachusetts that Dukakis had boasted of "saving" announced it would shut down and lay off 2,100 workers.

• Federal judges ordered wardens of badly overcrowded prisons to begin turning their inmates loose. The arch-liberal Boston Globe laid the responsibility for the crisis at Dukakis's doorstep.

• Dukakis's new state budget—by a mile the most costly in Massachusetts history—was pronounced DOA the moment it hit the legislature. The Ways and Means committee chairman in the state house of representatives, a loyal supporter of Dukakis during the presidential campaign, called it "pie in the sky…completely out of hand." The senate chairman, who'd been even more loyal, scolded the governor: "Take it back."

• Leaked memos revealed that on nine separate occasions in 1988, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, an economist by training, had warned Dukakis of an impending budget collapse, only to be ignored.

On top of which, the Celtics have sunk into almost unrelieved mediocrity, and the state's first lady announced that she had developed a drinking problem.

Still, it hasn't been totally bleak here on the banks of Boston Harbor. January 3, for example, was something of a red-letter day.

"I find myself arriving at the State House these days," declared Dukakis at a press conference, "just as enthused, just as energized, just as committed to this state and to its future as I was the day I first took the oath of office in 1975."

Whereupon, with enthusiasm, energy, and commitment, he announced that he would not run for another term as governor in 1990. You see? There has been some good news.

Jeff Jacoby is chief editorial writer for the Boston Herald.