Voters approve Cellucci's tax cut

By Tina Cassidy, Globe Staff, 11/8/2000

assachusetts voters yesterday granted themselves the largest single tax cut in state history, despite an aggressive, high-visibility campaign to defeat it.

Question 4, the centerpiece of Governor Paul Cellucci's political agenda, will reduce the income tax rate from 5.85 percent to 5 percent by 2003. The measure will cost $1.2 billion, and save a family of four with a household income of $75,000 about $450 a year.

''A great victory for the future of Massachusetts,'' said Cellucci, shortly after 9 p.m., as he appeared on a Woburn hotel stage, buoyant and beaming.

''I never met a tax cut I didn't like and this is a great thing for the people of Massachusetts,'' the governor later added. ''I've been in this business 30 years. I am a Republican in a Democratic state. My modus operandi is to focus on doing the right thing. That's what I did.''

Two hotly contested initiatives, one calling for universal health coverage and the other providing tax credits for tolls, appeared headed for defeat.

Douglas Barth, founder of the Free the Pike Coalition, said the initiative petition was their best hope for commuter savings and continuing the fight may be a lost cause.

''Is there some flavor of it that would be favorable to the 2002 ballot? I'm not thinking that way tonight, but speaking personally, 61/2 years is enough for me on a single issue.''

The initiative would have cost the state $650 million a year, and the governor and legislative leaders opposed it. Foes called the measure complicated, an encouragement to drive, and fundamentally unfair to non-driving taxpayers. They also said that the cut would take money from the state's general fund that's desperately needed for road and bridge repairs.

Meanwhile, voters overwhelmingly supported an initiative to bar incarcerated felons from voting, which was pushed by Cellucci and Republican lawmakers, and fiercely opposed by civil liberties advocates.

But after pleas from track workers that they would lose their jobs, voters appeared unwilling to ban greyhound racing at the state's two tracks, a measure that would have shuttered a $400 million industry that employs approximately 2,000.

Question 5, which would have made Massachusetts the first state to mandate universal medical coverage, appeared to have been rejected, as its backers conceded defeat late last night.

''We're pleased that the voters of Massauchsetts have chosen to vote no on Question 5,'' said Richard C. Lord, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. ''There are problems in the health care system to address but blowing up the system as Question 5 would have done is not the answer.''

Opponents argued the question was a ''wrecking ball'' that would have led to unprecedented health costs and more uninsured residents than ever, and poured more than $1 million into a television advertising blitz during the final week of the campaign.

Voters appearead to be leaning against Question 8, which called for permitting more drug offenders to go into treatment rather than prison. The measure was pushed by out of state money, including billionaire George Soros, a proponent of decriminalizing marijuana use. Police worked hard to defeat the measure.

Other ballot questions approved: Question 1, which requires the Legislature to draw new districts for lawmakers within two years of the federal Census, and and Question 7, a tax deduction for charitable contributions, which has already been passed by the Legislature.

But the cost of Question 4 made it one of the most important initiatives on the ballot.

The tax cut was vigorously opposed by labor unions, especially teachers and human service workers, who said the money should be used to reduce class sizes, expand services to the needy, and pay down the state's debt.

The Campaign for Massachusetts' Future, which organized the opposition to Question 4, dispatched about 7,000 sign-waving opponents to polling stations statewide and spent nearly $3 million to defeat the tax cuts, said spokesman Jim St. George.

But it was still not enough.

''The governor has the easiest job in politics, offering a tax cut at a time when the economy is moving along so well,'' St. George said. ''We still plan to hold the governor accountable. He says we will be able to continue to expand our investments in schools and health care, and that's a promise we intend to make sure he keeps.''

When Question 4 results flashed on a giant TV screen at the Crowne Plaza in Woburn, supporters cheered and clapped.

''Thank you Lord! The promise that was made 11 years ago has finally been kept. The Legislature didn't keep the promise so now the poeple did it for them,'' said Loretta Hayden of Stoughton, a Campaign worker for Citizens for Limited Taxation.

In 1989, the Legislature increase the tax rate from 5 percent to 6.25 percent, saying the raise was a temporary measure to get through the recession.

The passage of Question 4 will lower Massachusetts' overall tax burden, dropping the state from fifth highest to tenth, according to 1999 US Census Bureau statistics.

However, Massachusetts would still have the highest rate of the five states with flat income tax structures; although 30 states with graduated rates would be be higher, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators.

By supporting Question 4, reducing the income tax rate to 5 percent, Massachusetts residents essentially endorsed the centerpiece of Cellucci's political agenda - and sent fear through the ranks of a Legislature worried about the initiative's cost.

The wide ranging ballot questions, sunny skies, and high interest in the presidential contest drew big crowds out to vote. Polling places in Boston remained open after the official 8 p.m. closing.

Raja Mishra, Brian MacQuarrie, Raphael Lewis and Steve Wilmsen of the Globe Staff assisted with this report, as did correspondent Amber Bollman.