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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

How do you pay for it, redux?

The signs appear to be lining up on Beacon Hill for a monumental battle that will redefine Massachusetts and its place in America for years to come.

Overblown rhetoric? Not if a likely proposal from Deval Patrick aimed at retaining the state's historic role as leader in public education meets up with the Massachusetts Legislature's fear of the Taxachusetts label.

Irresistible force, meet immovable object.

Patrick is dropping louder and broader hints that the way to property tax relief in cities and towns is through a shifting of a larger piece of education funding burden to the state. Paying for those shifted costs is the heart of the problem.

As the Globe notes:
Currently, the state covers less than 40 percent of the cost of local education, with cities and towns picking up the rest through the property tax. While it is a stable source of revenue, it places a sometimes difficult burden on the elderly or people with fixed incomes, and some argue it increases the disparity between communities based on personal income and property value.
That less than 40 percent is becoming an ever-increasing burden to empty-nesters and couples without children but who believe a good school system is an important element of the quality of life -- and property values -- in a community. But ever rising tax assessments is pushing their good citizenship to the breaking point.

The state's share has been the focus of court battles now stretching over two decades to come up with an equitable funding solution that treats Lawrence and Andover students the same way in the classroom despite the yawning property value gaps across those borders.

The state's share means Chapter 70 funding, named after the section of state law that spells out how schools are financed. And that means the "broad-based taxes" -- income and sales. Welcome to the problem.

With the House digging in its heels at the thought of corporate tax loophole closing -- and the dream of a 5 percent income tax still alive in the CLT crowd -- tax reform seems to be a dead issue here.

So how do you solve this huge contradiction between a basic and vital service of government -- public education -- with the long-standing tenet of conservative tax politics that you can have
something for nothing?

Unless you are George Bush and the federal government which can run up the credit card for our great-great-great grandchildren to deal with, something has to give.

So far, the Massachusetts House doesn't want to see that. The budget they passed added $175 million to a bottom line that was already being propped up by the "rainy day" fund.

Now I know it's been awful gloomy around here, but that rainy day hasn't arrived financially. Oh, we may be in for yet another downpour, but generally times are good.

But by boosting spending without real consideration of the long-term picture, the House did taxpayers a serious disservice.

What happens when you face a serious proposal, like the one percolating in the Patrick administration, to overhaul school funding to improve education?

Yes, casino gambling is out there on the horizon, a siren song of cheap and easy bucks. And the arguments against snagging a piece of the pie that New Englanders wager annually are becoming weaker all the time.

The Patrick proposal likely won't hit until after this budget is put to bed and lawmakers recess for the summer. And with everything, the devil will be in the details.

Maybe the House's wager on a better economy generating enough revenue to meet all are needs will come in. Or maybe it will hit three lemons on the slot machine of tax policy.

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