Mass. Voters Keep Sales Tax, But Repeal It On Alcohol

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BOSTON — Correction appended — Massachusetts voters are putting the alcohol sales tax down the drain. They voted narrowly to repeal the year-old sales tax on store-bought alcohol.  But they stopped short of cutting the general sales tax and they also shot down a proposal to repeal the state’s affording housing requirement.

In the run up to Election Day, it seemed like such a good climate for anti-tax, anti-regulation ballot initiatives. There were frustrated voters out there, like Eileen Connor of Hyde Park, who’s been out of work for a year and a half.

"Even people that are working can’t afford to buy what they used to buy!" Connor said.

That sentiment helped kill the state sales tax on store-bought alcohol. Liquor distributors and package stores put the question on the ballot. Their spokeswoman, P.J. Foster, said pocketbooks made the difference at the polls.

"Consumers were feeling that," Foster said. "When they saw Question 1 on the ballot it was their opportunity to regain a little bit of that income."

Passing Question 1 means Massachusetts is getting rid of the sales tax on alcohol after only a year.  Even Prohibition lasted longer. Now the state will lose about $110 million in revenue next year.

But the state won’t lose $2.5 billion. That’s what it would have lost had Question 3 passed. Voters did not go ahead and slash the general sales tax to 3 percent.

"That’s about what I would expect for Massachusetts," said John Bayle from Marlborough, who was among the disappointed supporters who’d gathered at a British pub in Framingham last night.

Passing Question 1 means Massachusetts is getting rid of the sales tax on alcohol after only a year.

Carla Howell, the libertarian who keeps putting anti-tax measures on the ballot, said Question 3 gained ground.

"In 2002, we got 885,000 votes," Howell said. "Two years ago we did another statewide ballot initiative, we had 915,000 votes. We appear to be on track for 1 million or more votes this election. So we’re moving in the right direction."

Actually she fell just short of 1 million votes, but the main thing is, more people voted against Question 3.

"Once people started looking at what it actually pays for — education, public safety, roads and bridges, our community hospitals — Massachusetts voters decided it wasn’t for them," said Toby McGrath, the spokesman for the opponents’ campaign, which was successful in keeping the state sales tax at 6.25 percent.

To help voters decide it wasn’t for them, McGrath’s coalition of public sector unions spent $4 million. They outspent Carla Howell’s group by about 16-1.

Advocates of ballot Question 2 had hoped to repeal the state’s affordable housing law. They lost handily.

"Voters overwhelmingly decided that we need to keep this law on the books and keep creating affordable housing," said Question 2 opponent Francy Ronayne.

So despite the tough economy, in the end Massachusetts voters decided they’re still willing to pay taxes and back affordable housing. They just need a drink — and they want that drink tax-free.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said developers had hoped to repeal the state’s affordable housing law, known as 40B. However, most developers opposed Question 2. While developers are required by the law to offer units at below-market rate, 40B gives them some zoning flexibility in exchange.


This program aired on November 3, 2010.

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Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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