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Small Battles Big In Mass. Sales Tax Ballot Fight

BOSTON — Taxes: they made Massachusetts residents angry, sparking the American Revolution. And they’re making voters angry again now.

The battle of today is on Tuesday’s ballot. Question 3 would reduce the state sales tax by more than half, down to 3 percent.

Question 3 is the brainchild of Carla Howell, the former Libertarian candidate for governor in 2002. She has worked to pass other anti-tax measures before. Howell is so passionate about taxes, she wrote and sings a tongue-in-cheek song, “How Can I Live Without Filing Taxes”.

Howell runs the Alliance to Roll Back Taxes out of her Wayland home, where volunteers make phone calls, print out flyers and hand out yard signs to supporters like Kim Bryant, of Waltham. Bryant donated $500 to the campaign.

“I think there are fewer small businesses in my town,” Bryant said. “And I think the taxes are just driving businesses out of business.”

Bryant’s contribution is part of the approximately $90,000 Howell’s group has raised so far this year. That’s not enough cash for spendy TV ads. The group mainly gets on TV and radio through news interviews.

Howell criticized state spending on WBUR’s Radio Boston.

“Full of waste,” Howell said in the studio. “I mean, the MBTA is one example, people have been retiring in their 40s, even in their young 40s. Now that’s just plain crazy.”

Sitting across from Howell debating Question 3 was Steve Crawford, her counterpart at the Coalition for Our Communities.

“People who say they want to send a message, voting in support of Question 3 is not the way to do that,” Crawford said.

Like Howell, Crawford is an old hand at these campaigns. This time he’s speaking for a coalition of unions that have spent at least $2.5 million to defeat Question 3. The money’s gone for well-lit TV spots, showing teachers bemoaning that Question 3 would cram more students into the classroom.

“And if we do not prepare (children) with education,” says one TV ad, “and the services that they need to get that, we will not have our future.”

Despite the local faces, much of the money on both sides comes from outside Massachusetts. The nonpartisan think tank MassINC says 36 percent of the cash given to the Alliance to Roll Back Taxes came from out-of-state donors, primarily Californians.

Question 3 opponents got an even larger share from outside — 50 percent — mainly from Washington, D.C. lobby groups.

While both campaigns have outside support, they both differ in one key way: Howell’s group is backed by individuals. The coalition against Question 3 is almost entirely funded by big associations, like public sector unions and business groups. The head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Paul Guzzi, said it’s not just money, though, it’s also communication to members.

“We’ve organized business associations,” Guzzi said. “And we’re encouraging people to be very thoughtful, and to vote no on Question 3.”

Some critics of Howell say she’s created a cottage industry of regularly pushing anti-tax ballot measures. But she dismisses that, saying her fight against lobbies with deep pockets is “even bigger” than David and Goliath.

Yet even if Question 3 does not pass, Howell may still be successful.

“These things, even if they don’t pass, they’re essentially a shot across the bow,” said Conor Yunits, a political analyst at the Liberty Square Group in Boston.

In the end, Yunits said, when state politicians see how many people want to cut their taxes, it makes it a lot harder to even think about raising them.

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