In the upcoming election, Massachusetts voters get to vote on Proposition 1, to repeal the state income tax. This morning I heard Carla Howell – failed Libertarian candidate for governor and a major proponent of this measure – repeating the old “government is too big” whine. She also repeated the lie that Massachusetts has the fifth-highest tax burden, based on cherry-picking her figures, when by the only measure that matters – total per-person tax burden at all levels of government and all kinds of tax – Massachusetts is actually in the bottom third of the nation. I contend that the problem is not the overall size and power of government but how its size and power are arranged or applied. Government is too big in the wrong places, for the wrong people. It’s too big at the most remote federal level, instead of at the state and local levels. It works too hard on behalf of corporations and rich people, and not hard enough on behalf of normal people. Big government might be a problem, but the worse problem is bad government. The solution is not to make it smaller so much as to make it better.

Here’s what would happen if the state income tax were repealed.

  • The state would try to increase revenue via sales tax and increased fees, and quite likely be reconsidering governor Patrick’s plan to legalize casinos.
  • Towns would try to increase revenue via property taxes. Contra Howell, “proposition 2½” does not impose a hard limit here; overrides are almost routine in many towns, and would be more so under her regime.
  • Both state and towns would turn to the federal government for assistance, but of course to get one dollar back from that source Massachusetts citizens would have to put in three because most federal money gets sucked southward and westward to “red” states.
  • Both state and towns would try to reduce spending by reducing services and foregoing maintenance. If you think years of such shortsightedness have left our roads and bridges in poor shape now – they have, actually – just see what happens if Howell gets her way. Soon, those people who claim they need a big four-wheel-drive vehicle might not be lying after all.

For each of those items, ask yourself how it affects the average person. As one type of tax is replaced with another, as will assuredly happen, consider who pays most of the old tax vs. who pays most of the new one. Who suffers most from reductions in service, or in state oversight and regulation? Who benefits? This plan would be great for people with high incomes which go mostly toward “investment” or out-of-state spending instead of local consumption – people like $200K consultant Carla Howell – but that benefit would come at everyone else’s expense. Her “activism” is really just self-interest. Leaving more people in Massachusetts uneducated or sick, surrounded by decaying infrastructure, will not make it a magnet for industry and commerce. Any company that would move its operations here for lower taxes despite those effects would be even more likely to move its operations overseas for the same reasons, and those aren’t the kind of businesses we really need to focus on anyway. We need to concentrate on attracting high-skill high-pay high-tax-base kinds of enterprise, and to do that we need to head in exactly the opposite direction compared to Howell’s plan.

P.S. Go read the actual text of the petition if you want to see what it actually says. Fair warning, though: it takes a strong stomach to wade through all the “evil big government” ranting and utterly unsubstantiated claims. This is supposed to be a serious policy proposal? The sanest part is “page 5 of 3″ at the end. I guess you can put whatever silly “findings and declarations” into these things that you want, even if they’re totally irrelevant to the concrete actions being proposed.