Cellucci aides call on foes to help battle Pike tax credit

By Tina Cassidy, Globe Staff, 10/19/2000

he Cellucci administration, fearful that a ballot question that would return $650 million to Massachusetts drivers is likely to pass, is quietly trying to defeat the measure by appealing to an unlikely group: the governor's political enemies.

Administration and Finance Secretary Stephen Crosby is trying to persuade Democratic activists to back off their criticism of the governor's income tax rate reduction, known as Question 4, and instead focus on defeating Question 6, the so-called ''Free the Pike'' initiative petition.

Together, Questions 4 and 6 would siphon nearly $2 billion, or about 10 percent, from the Massachusetts budget, a fact that has many on Beacon Hill quaking over the financial consequences, especially if the economy sours.

Crosby's appeal appeared only to anger the opponents of Question 6, which would provide tax credits for money spent on tolls and motor vehicle excise taxes. The opponents suggested they are taking a politically unpopular position by fighting a measure to give people back money, while Cellucci has remained mostly invisible on the question.

For the most part, those who oppose the governor's income tax question are against the tolls initiative for the same reason: They believe they're too expensive.

However, Cellucci, who has said he has never met a tax cut he does not like, maintains that he is against the ''Free the Pike'' question because it is bad tax policy that encourages car usage and is unfair to those who use public transportation - not because he believes the measure is unaffordable. Regardless, he wants it defeated.

However, Cellucci aides say he will not overtly campaign against it.

Instead, Crosby has been calling on Question 4's most vocal critics, including state Treasurer Shannon P. O'Brien and the ''No on 4 and 6 Campaign,'' asking them to divert all their energies toward defeating the commuter referendum.

''His proposal is, `Question 6 is very serious and very dangerous,' '' said Jim St. George, spokesman for ''No on 4 and 6.'' ''[Crosby said] we should join forces and aim our guns at it. Our response is, we already are. What are you doing? The campaign has been working for 10 months now on Question 6. To the best of my knowledge, Paul Cellucci has only twice stated his opposition'' to the measure.

O'Brien, who has been an outspoken critic of Question 4, said she was surprised to get a call from Crosby asking for her cooperation.

She said Crosby asked her to ''throw in the towel'' on the income tax cut because Question 4 has overwhelming public support, unlike Question 6, which is running more evenly in the polls.

''I said I would pass [his message] along to the people who are the opponents of Question 4 and I did that,'' O'Brien said. ''I think that right now [the governor] is in a pretty difficult situation because even he recognizes that if 4 and 6 pass, it's going to mean a disaster for his administration.''

Crosby said he reached out to Democrats because they have a common interest and Question 6 still has the potential to be defeated.

''Question 6 is still on the margins,'' he said.

As for Cellucci becoming more vocal in his opposition against the commuter initiative, Crosby said that is unlikely.

''He's not campaigning against 6 and he won't,'' Crosby added. ''If the people of Massachusetts think that, on top of Question 4, our taxes are too high and they vote for 6, then we will act accordingly and things will be fine.''

Crosby also denied that the adminstration is worried about the ballot question's fiscal implications.

''The problem with Question 6 is that it's a lousy way to make tax policy,'' Crosby said. ''It's probably unconstitutional. It shifts the burden of the toll facilities from users to the state as a whole. It's regressive. It induces the use of cars. It's inequitable to transit users. And it's not phased in.''

Furthermore, Crosby said he would not characterize his contact with Democrats as trying to cut a deal.

''There's no offer to make a deal,'' he explained. ''What I said is, there may be a commonality of interest, apropos of Question 6, coming at it for different reasons. We're not worried about revenue. We had an $800 million surplus last year prior to the [emergency] Big Dig funding.''

Question 4 would cost $1.2 billion after the tax reduction is fully phased in, dropping the rate from 5.85 percent to 5 percent by 2003.

Question 6 would cost $650 million a year. The price tag if the two should pass: About $2 billion annually.

Meanwhile, Fitch, the Wall Street bond rating agency, has issued a report highlighting the potential impact of the ballot questions, especially if the economy slows, and is paying close attention to the questions.

''You could have a real problem,'' said Fitch vice chairwoman Claire G. Cohen. ''You could be losing not just this amount but other potential tax collections as well [in a recession].''