Businesses lukewarm on tax-cut initiatives

By Tina Cassidy, Globe Staff, 11/2/2000

n association of small businesses endorsed Question 4 at the foot of the State House one recent day, one of the few declarations of support from the business community for the $1.2 billion income tax cut.

Yet the announcement, blared through tinny speakers, hardly seemed momentous. There was no crowd, just the wife of one of the speakers, a few members of the governor's staff, and a Duck Tour vehicle crammed with tourists gazing toward the golden dome as they stopped at the red light on Beacon Street.

Corporations, trade groups, and chambers of commerce have shied away from publicly supporting Question 4, which would reduce the income tax rate from 5.85 percent to 5 percent.

They are also avoiding speaking out on Question 6, which would provide tax credits for tolls and auto excise taxes, including corporate excise taxes.

But while the corporations and chief executives stay publicly neutral, some have quietly made large donations to the income tax rollback measure.

Boston Edison donated $10,000 in July to support Question 4's Tax Rollback Committtee; Boston Scientific gave $5,000 in March; Bernard Cammarata, CEO of TJX, contributed $5,000 in February; John W. Childs, a partner of J.W. Childs Associates, gave $20,000 between February and May. Other large contributions have flowed from Goodrich Properties Inc., H.P. Hood, New Balance Athletic Shoes, EMC Corp. and Legal Seafoods.

Several boards of major business organizations, however, decided not to back the tax cut, which Governor Paul Cellucci has championed and teachers and labor groups opposed. Sources said the boards at the South Shore Chamber, as well as the Greater Boston Chamber, could not agree on whether to back tax cuts, so they did nothing.

Kevin Kiley, executive vice-president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association, which is also staying neutral on questions 4 and 6, said although some in his group support tax reductions, others fear they will drain revenue from infrastructure improvements and efforts to produce an educated workforce to fill shortages in the labor market.

''Different people in the industry have different perspectives,'' said Massachusetts Bankers' executive vice president. ''Clearly a lot of the attention in the business community this year is on the health care question [Question 5], specifically because of the impact that may have on employers' health care costs.''

One of the few vocal supporters of Question 4 is the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which views the measure as critical to the labor market.

''We're number one in personal income tax burden per capita,'' said Howard Foley, the group's president. ''That hurts us in recruiting and keeping people here.''

Yet the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which has 5,000 members, took no position on Question 4. AIM's executive vice president, Brian Gilmore, said the group does not believe in the initiative petition process.

''It is not the way to address complex fiscal uses,'' Gilmore said.

AIM did endorse an alternative plan put forth by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation which would reduce the income tax rate to 5 percent gradually, tied to how well the economy is doing. Question 4 would lower the rate in steps by 2003.

Opponents of the tax referendum say the lack of unanimity - or outspoken support - in the business community is evidence of real concern about its impact on state services.

''So few business organizers have endorsed the governor's campaign,'' said Jim St. George, spokesman for the Campaign for Massachusetts' Future, which is fighting Question 4. ''The most conservative chamber of commerce in the state, the South Shore Chamber, they were leading advocates of Proposition 21/2 20 years ago,'' he said, referring to the percentage cap on local tax increases. ''And they're taking a pass on this one. They're saying when times are good, they're not willing to buck the governor but they're not on board with him.''