When Liberalism Finally Collides With Reality

A rebellion is brewing in liberal Brookline, Massachusetts over raising property taxes.


Brookline, Mass.—Voters here will go to the polls May 5 to decide on whether to raise property taxes by $7.67 million for a year to fund increased spending on public schools.

And the surprising thing, in the hometown of Michael Dukakis, a left-leaning enclave where Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney 79 percent to 21 percent in 2012 and Elizabeth Warren took 74 percent of the vote in the Senate election against Scott Brown, is that there is some strong opposition.

Driving or walking through the streets here, one sees more than a few "NO on #1" lawn signs urging votes against the tax increase. Opponents of the tax increase have put up a slick website, betterbrooklineoverride.com, complete with an elaborate online calculator that allows residents to figure out "how much more you will pay over the next six years."

To appeal to the left-leaning Brookline electorate, opponents of the tax increase have also framed their campaign carefully. They insist that they aren't opposed to any tax increase; they just want a smaller increase, in the $5 million to $6 million range rather than the $7 to $8 million range. And they stress that the tax increase could force out Brookline's middle-class residents and seniors, damaging the town's economic diversity and hurting vulnerable elderly people.

A campaign opposing a $7.67 million tax increase in favor of a $6 million one instead may strike Grover Norquist types as weak beer. On the other hand, one has to start somewhere. In the language of the tax increase opponents can be found the sound of contemporary American coastal liberalism colliding with reality, and who knows where that may lead?

Thrift, after all, is a New England virtue, one that opponents of the tax increase wish were stressed more in their town government. "Money is not the answer to everything," a former selectman, Richard Benka, said in arguing against the tax increase at a forum hosted earlier this month by the Brookline League of Women Voters.

"They are asking to fund wants, not needs," said another opponent of the tax increase who spoke at the forum, Carol Levin.

The campaign against the tax increase says on its website that it is concerned about "the philosophy of bigger and more expensive is better." It says, "Current levels of school spending are unsustainable: even before the proposed override, spending has outpaced growth in enrollment and town revenues and far outpaced many residents' income growth."

Some historical and geographical context will be helpful to outsiders. Proposition 2 ½ , a statewide Massachusetts ballot initiative passed in 1980, limits property tax revenues in Massachusetts and their rate of increase. Cities and towns can override Proposition 2 ½; those that do so tend to have higher property taxes but also higher property values and better schools. The May 5 vote in Brookline is a Proposition 2 ½ override that would go along with the town's previous overrides.

Choices on these issues by local voters has significant effects. The border between Brookline and neighboring Boston isn't like the light versus dark in those NASA photos of South and North Korea, but it is nevertheless a significant dividing line, so much so that the same house might be worth $100,000 or $200,000 more on the Brookline side than on the Boston side. Residents of properties that straddle the line have launched elaborate campaigns to send their children to Brookline schools rather than Boston schools, and Brookline has responded with similarly elaborate campaigns to keep them out. The status quo, so far as I can tell, has to do not only with the location, relative to the Brookline-Boston border, of the bedroom in which the prospective student sleeps, but also, within the bedroom, the location of the prospective student's bed, and his or her sleeping body, relative to the border. This all has to do, too, not only with taxes but also with race and with Boston's legacy of court-ordered busing and school desegregation versus Brookline's neighborhood schools.

Meanwhile, Brookline has changed; its most famous residents are no longer Larry Bird and Michael Dukakis; they are now Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen, and John Henry.

More famous than any of them is John F. Kennedy, the Democratic politician whose birthplace on Beals Street in Brookline is a National Historic Site. It was Kennedy, campaigning in Pennsylvania in the closing days of the 1960 presidential race, who said, "The property tax in most urban communities has reached the point of diminishing returns…I come from a city where the property tax is about $103 or $104 per thousand dollars, and the assessments reasonably high, and at that point I say it becomes confiscatory."

If Brookline's brewing tax rebellion has a national impact, let's just say it wouldn't be the first time.