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Gov. Baker Just Signed A Tax Increase. But He Doesn't Want You To Call It That

Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledges applause as he takes the stage to address the Massachusetts Republican Convention at the DCU Center in Worcester on April 28, 2018. (Winslow Townson/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledges applause as he takes the stage to address the Massachusetts Republican Convention at the DCU Center in Worcester on April 28, 2018. (Winslow Townson/AP)

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When is a tax increase not a tax increase? When it’s signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Or so runs the governor’s thinking.

Baker just signed into law a 0.63 percent payroll tax that funds a brand-new entitlement: 12 weeks of paid family leave and 20 weeks of medical leave.

I can hear some of you grumbling. Maybe you’re one of the roughly one-third of Americans who won’t have kids and you’re thinking, “Why should I have to pay for someone else’s decision to have a child?” Well, if you’re thinking that way, you’re just mean-spirited. Plus, it’s important to encourage people to have children in ever-greater numbers because otherwise Disney World’s park attendance will drop and we can’t have that. In addition, the tax is really small: If you make $50,000 a year, it works out to around $6 a week, about the cost of one of those highfaluting craft beers. A beer for a baby — is it really too much to ask?

In any event, this isn’t about you. It’s about our governor. Four years ago, we had a spirited contest between Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley. As is typical in these races, the Democrat promised us a lot more taxes and a lot more government goodies, while the Republican promised us no new taxes and governmental restraint. The Republican won and so we got … a lot more taxes and a lot more government goodies.

To be fair, Baker was not a tax hardliner in that 2014 race. Four years earlier, however, he had been. In his 2010 attempt — a losing race against incumbent Deval Patrick — Baker took the infamous Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Pushed by activist Grover Norquist, the pledge is a firm and unequivocal promise not to increase taxes. Baker even said at the time, “Read my lips: No new taxes” -- a repeat of George H.W. Bush’s promise in his 1988 campaign. An interesting repeat, by the way, because Bush ended up breaking his word. “Read my lips” has since become synonymous with deceit. So at the altar, for example, if the groom says, “Read my lips: Forsaking all others,” you can be pretty sure he’s going to cheat.

Anyhow, by the time the 2014 race rolled around, Baker had gotten wobbly on taxes. He refused to sign the pledge — although he still said he wouldn’t support any new taxes. After he won, Norquist expressed misgivings. “There's only one reason not to take the pledge and that's because you want to raise taxes, and if you're not going to do it, you put it in writing,” he said about Baker. And you can see why. Baker has over the years flirted with extending the hotel tax to cover Airbnb rentals. And he refused to stake out a position of the proposed (but now dead) 2018 ballot question for a so-called “millionaire’s tax."

So really, no one should be surprised that the no-new-tax vow would eventually be broken. Although wait! It hasn’t been! In what amounts to a piece of breathtakingly ridiculous rhetorical legerdemain, Baker says a tax isn’t a tax if it relates to some “new service” offered by the government. It’s only a tax, he says, if you’re using the money to “balance the budget.”

But of course, pretty much the entire budget is about services: building highways, paying for health care, enforcing regulations, and so on. And how you pay it — through income taxes, sales taxes or payroll taxes — is irrelevant. It’s still a forced extraction of money from a citizen’s pocket.

Granted, a veto by Baker wouldn’t have derailed the new tax. Both the House and Senate passed the measure by veto-proof majorities. Nevertheless, Baker could have taken a stand. And the fact that he didn’t basically scotches his future within the national Republican party. New taxes are a heresy that the party simply won’t countenance.

All of which leads to this question: Maybe it’s time for Baker to switch parties — or at least dump the Republican label. He’s been uncomfortable — indeed, appalled — from the get-go with the man now in the White House. Baker likes government, he likes new government programs, and he has no problem finding the money to pay for those programs. So, governor, why not hitch your star to a different wagon?

And while you’re at it, please just admit the truth: It is a tax.

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Tom Keane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tom Keane is a Boston-based writer.

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