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Bay Staters Consider Tax Revolt

It may be the biggest tax revolt in Massachusetts since the Boston Tea Party. In November, voters could wipe the state's personal income tax off the books.

Supporters call the measure, which is on the ballot as "Question 1," a much-needed break for ordinary people.

Opponents call it fiscal insanity. Both sides say the weak economy boosts its chances of passing. WBUR's Curt Nickisch reports.

TEXT OF STORY:

CURT NICKISCH: Rising foreclosures. Stalled Wall Street bailout. Crashing housing market. In a melodrama, it would be time to cue the violin:

[Sound of violin]

NICKISCH: But it's not melodrama - it's real life. Kristina Nilsson, a freelance musician, is rehearsing. Her husband sits in a wheelchair in the next room of their Newton home. He has multiple sclerosis. He is why she will vote to phase out the state income taxes over two years.

KRISTINA NILSSON: He's completely - I don't want to say enslaved, but he's pretty much confined to the house. I take him to his hair cuts and doctors appointments. But other than that, he can't get around. If I had in my pocket that Massachusetts income tax money, I could buy him a decent - the kind of scooter that he really could use.

NICKISCH: Eliminating the personal income tax would let the Nilsson's keep almost seven thousand dollars more a year - that's twice what the average taxpayer gets to keep. It would also remove twelve billion dollars from the state budget.

MIKE WIDMER: This is far and away the most radical proposal ever to be put before Massachusetts voters.

NICKISCH: That's Mike Widmer. He heads the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation - a watchdog group that advocates for the best use of the taxpayer dollar. He says cutting the state budget by 45 percent would cripple Massachusetts government. But he's afraid the weak economy will pave the way for the drastic proposal.

WIDMER: It's emotions versus reason, and this is a difficult time for reason to win out. These are exquisitely perfect conditions to want to vote oneself a tax cut and/or send a message to political leaders.

NICKISCH: That's exactly what supporters want to do. A similar ballot measure six years ago surprised the political establishment by taking forty-five percent of the vote. Carla Howell, a former libertarian candidate for governor, led that effort. Now she's at it again. Howell says there's plenty of waste in the state budget to put billions back in the hands of taxpayers.

CARLA HOWELL: The Big Dig. Police Detail. Hundred thousand dollar a year sign hangers. Seventy thousand dollar a year toll-takers. Exorbitant government employee pensions. Those are obvious things to go.

NICKISCH: But opponents say so much would have to go, that Massachusetts would go... down the tubes.

STEVE CRAWFORD: We understand that people are having a tough time and times are tough. But if Question 1 is successful, there's no question it will make it worse.

NICKISCH: Steve Crawford is spokesman for a group of unions that oppose the ballot measure. They say the cut in state spending would have to be so drastic, that fire stations would close, roads would go to pot, and tens of thousands of state employees would be out of work. And that would end up sinking the state's economy, Crawford says, and everyone with it.

CRAWFORD: Businesses do not want to invest in places that don't invest in themselves.

NICKISCH: The prospect of an income tax repeal has some government officials threatening to raise property and sales taxes instead. Here's Boston Mayor Tom Menino:

MAYOR TOM MENINO: Don't let people fool you; we don't have to pay taxes. That's a lot of hookah-hogwash. You pay one way or the other. It costs money to run government. It costs a lot of money to run government.

NICKISCH: You'll also see a lot of money spent to run the campaigns for and against over the next month. Especially as the far better funded opponents roll out TV spots and town-hall style meetings to lobby voters.

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

This program aired on October 7, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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