Promises, promises

Boston Globe editorial, 11/6/2000

ASSACHUSETTS government has made many promises over the past 50 years, and these are the reasons that Questions 4 and 6 ought to be defeated this Tuesday. Paying for the Central Artery project, the education reform law, and all the other responsibilities of state government requires the retention of the $1.85 billion in revenue that is at stake.

It may be that in 1952, when legislators set up the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, they expected the tolls would be dropped once the bonds had been paid. But the law allowed extensions of the Pike all the way into Boston. The latest expansion, via the Ted Williams Tunnel, is under construction now, as part of the Central Artery project.

Legislators in 1952 could not have foreseen that their overall highway plan, which called for an Inner Belt through Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods, would have to be revised because the affected neighborhoods would rise up against the planned highways. The wise decision to kill the Inner Belt in 1971 necessitated the widening and depression of the Artery itself to encourage traffic flow through the city. Turnpike tolls east of Route 128 are helping to defray the cost of this enormous project.

Question 6 would not abolish the tolls, but would cost the state $650 million a year from tax credits taken by people who pay tolls or auto excise taxes. Proponents fail to say how the state would make up this revenue.

It certainly won't be from the income tax if Question 4 passes. This would slash $1.2 billion a year from the state revenue base.

Proponents based their campaign on the Legislature's supposed promise to rescind an income tax increase passed in 1989 at the start of a recession. Legislators may indeed have considered this temporary, but they made it permanent in 1990 as the recession bit deeper. Later that year, voters declined to approve a ballot question to rescind it and other tax increases.

Since then, the Legislature has cut more than $3 billion per year in other taxes. Meanwhile, the Legislature has made one of the boldest promises in its history: ''To assure fair and adequate minimum per-student funding for public schools in the Commonwealth,'' in the words of the 1993 education reform law. During this fiscal year, the state will spend $3.6 billion under this law.

The Legislature has made many other promises - to the mentally retarded and the mentally ill, to abused children, to people who want to protect the environment, to those who use public transit. All of them cost money to fulfill. The state is not in the dire fiscal condition of 1990, but it has since assumed responsibilities that require a strong revenue base. This is no time to reduce the state's commitment to effective government.