As economy sours, campaign to preserve income tax kicks off

Opponents of the ballot question eliminating the state income tax officially launched their campaign last week in Grove Hall, trotting out a Worcester businessman, a UMass-Boston student, a Cape Cod nurse and a Dorchester special needs teacher and saying the ballot question's passage would lead to public schools closings, roads and bridges falling into disrepair and higher taxes and fees in other areas.

Several press conference participants had ties to unions, which are largely financing the campaign to turn voters against a repeal of the state's 5.3 percent income tax. Opponents also pointed to strong support from business groups, while ballot question backers said the warnings amounted to scare tactics.

The competing campaigns come as consumers grapple with a shaky economy and high food and gas prices.

About a dozen proponents of the No on Question 1 campaign who gathered in front of the freshly-renovated Jeremiah Burke High School repeatedly called the ballot question "reckless" and painted apocalyptic pictures of its potential effects, saying passage will lead to deep cuts in local aid. As a result, public schools and community centers would be forced to close and taxpayers would face increases in other taxes and fees such as marriage licenses and school equipment fees.

Raising other taxes and fees will be necessary to prevent the state from getting downgraded to "junk bond" status, according to Harris Gruman, the No on Question 1 campaign manager. Gruman is also the Massachusetts political director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the former chair of the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. He has also worked with an activist group, Neighbor to Neighbor.

The income tax netted $12.5 billion in revenues during fiscal 2008 to support state and local spending.

"A small business depends on the community it's in," said Mike Kozlowski, who owns a retail store in Worcester. "If the community falls apart, the small businesses are going to fall apart." He is also a member of Stand for Children, a statewide public education advocacy group.

Beth Piknick, a nurse at Cape Cod Hospital and president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said the implementation of the ballot question will lead to the closings of community centers, which the elderly depend on. "They will end up going to our emergency rooms," and end up costing the hospital money, she said.

Tara DeSisto, a UMass-Boston political science student, said passing the ballot question would lead to higher tuition and fees at the state's college campuses. "It's going to make it that much more difficult for non-traditional students," said DeSisto, who is a member of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, which pushes for increased funding in public colleges.

Gruman said the individuals highlighted at the press conference were on the "front lines of services" that would be directly affected by the ballot question's passage.

Carla Howell, who is leading the effort to repeal the income tax through the Committee for Small Government, dismissed the warnings of school closings and higher taxes.

"These claims are false and amount to threats from our opposition," said Howell, a one-time Libertarian candidate for governor.

Howell also rejected the claims that there will be higher taxes and fees if the question passes. "It will be extremely unpopular for them to do that," she said. "There's billions of dollars in waste and they're expected to provide essential government services."

The "waste," Howell said, includes overspending on the $15 billion Big Dig project, government employee pensions and paying for toll booth workers on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Releasing a one-page list, the No on Question One campaign also touted support from business groups, including the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), a lobbying heavyweight on Beacon Hill, the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Association, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Mass Business Roundtable, and venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli, who made a run as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2006.

"Both Republican leadership in the House and Senate and the party leadership on both sides of the aisle oppose Question One," said campaign spokesman Stephen Crawford, who has also worked for Gov. Deval Patrick's political committee and the Boston Teachers Union.

Howell said the business groups oppose the "tax cut for the everyday taxpayer" because they profit from "big government spending." The amount of money taxpayers would be due from an income tax cut would vary individually, with the average return to the wallet pegged at about $3,600, she said.

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