"No, No, and No" on Mass. Ballot Questions 1, 2, and 3
With the primaries behind us, and Election Day looming in the middle distance, it seems like a good time to take a look at this year's three statewide ballot questions. And it's interesting that the progressive position on all three looks to be a "no" vote. Which is fairly unusual. Anyhow, this is a fun topic for a non-profit news publication to weigh in on because - unlike elections where backing a candidate would be seen as electioneering by the IRS and therefore illegal - non-profits are allowed to weigh in on ballot initiatives. Meaning that Open Media Boston can actually take a position on this year's ballot questions. And here they are in brief ... Question 1 would repeal the sales tax on alcohol - or more specifically it would reinstate the exemption on applying state sales tax to alcohol that was removed last year. Question 2 would eliminate Chapter 40B from state law - better known as the law responsible for much of the affordable housing built in the Bay State in the last 40 years. Question 3 would cut the state sales tax from the 6.25 percent level to 3 percent. Got it? Good. Now let's take a closer look at these questons with some help from the folks at Ballotpedia.org.
OK, Question 1 - the No Sales Tax for Alcohol Question - is backed by ... brace yourselves ... the liquor industry. The initiative is being pushed by the Mass. Package Stores Association, and the top donor is the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts. Unsurprisingly, the liquor industry claims they have lost between 10 and 40 percent of sales since the tax was imposed last year. Opponents of the question with the Committee Against Repeal of Alcohol Tax dispute those figures, and in June, Renée Loth of the Boston Globe said that the state made $92 million in revenue from the tax in the first year of its implementation. Some of that money is earmarked to fighting alcohol abuse and addiction - and funds three "recovery high schools" for teenagers that have already struggled with alcohol and substance abuse.
Skipping ahead a bit, a closely related ballot initiatve, Question 3, was filed by former Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidate Carla Howell. The question's full name is the 3% Sales Tax Relief Act ... not to be confused with the 5% Sales Tax Relief Act, the 4% Sales Tax Relief Act and the 2.5% Sales Tax Relief Act also filed by Howell last year through her Alliance to Roll Back Taxes. Voters may remember Howell's 2008 ballot question that tried to wipe out the state income tax. By comparison this major anti-tax question is more reserved (kinda sorta), but Mass. Taxpayers Association president Michael Windmer says that if Question 1 and Question 3 pass that the state will be $2.5 billion a year in the hole - starting next year in FY 2012. At a time when that fiscal year's structural deficit is project to be about the same figure. Question 3 is opposed by a coalition of major unions led by the Mass. Teachers Association, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.
I should say that it's tough for me to root for regressive taxes like the sales tax that are harder on working people than wealthy people (although not hard at all for me to root for taxes on things like cigarettes and alcohol that do so much societal damage that its helpful to both put the brakes on their consumption and necessary for the public to recoup the cost of helping people damaged by their abuse). As I've repeatedly said, I'd much prefer to change the state constitution to allow a graduated progressive income tax in Massachusetts - which would immediately put the state back on fine financial footing, and fund a raft of good programs that we really need. Like public job creation, and low or no cost public higher education.
Nevertheless, the progressive tax is not happening this fiscal year, and state needs money for all kinds of important services; so further eroding our tax base is not the way to go.
The other ballot initiative is Question 2, the grandly-named Massachusetts Comprehensive Permits and Regional Planning Initiative, which would eliminate Chapter 40B from state law that helps get affordable housing built in the Commonwealth - particularly in well-off suburbs that would rather not have any of the hoi polloi living in high density housing near their tony estates. Question 2 is backed by the Coalition to Repeal 40B. And it is opposed by a huge coalition called the Campaign to Protect the Affordable Housing Law - spearheaded by Tripp Jones of the MassINC, the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth.
The initiative's sponsors do make some interesting arguments in favor of eliminating 40B - mainly by making a case that developers are afforded lots of ways to overcharge the state and artificially jack up real estate prices in the bargain - but, even if any of what they're saying is true, this initiative doesn't actually create an alternative to 40B. It just eliminates it and says that its absence will allow for better reforms to take its place. Not too smart in my book.
I will also say that although practically every progressive organization I know is backing the "no" campaign on Question 2, a sizeable chunk of the opposition's money is coming from the real estate industry - not just from the non-profit housing sector and various progressive advocates. Which makes me very uncomfortable given that same industry's destruction of rent control in the 1990s - and all kinds of other anti-worker shenanigans before and after that time.
On the other hand, the group behind the initiative is backed by the Better Not Bigger Alliance (formerly the Massachusetts Slow Growth Initiative) and their parent organization the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population. Groups that favor sustainable development ... and population control. Which also makes me uncomfortable, since far too many population control groups have agendas that are, shall we say, unkind to people of color the world over. Not to mention their penchant for letting capitalism off the hook for destroying public jobs, housing and education programs in poor countries all over the world through the auspices of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other corporate-controlled transnational entities.
If people (women most of all) are well-fed, housed and educated, I guarantee you'll see a fast drop in global population without any kind of messed-up eugenics program in sheep's clothing. Just look at European countries like Italy - where programs to pay women to have more babies (and even to not abort babies) aren't stopping the population from shrinking. (I should point out at this juncture that I'm aware that you can also get a population drop from emigration, disease, and/or declining life expectancy due to economic immiseration. Like all such policy topics, this one is a minefield.)
To be fair, however, after looking over their public materials I'm not prepared to say that the groups behind Question 2 are closet racist and nativist organizations. In fact, they mostly sound like fairly mainstream environmentalists. And they specifically lay out progressive goals. Problem is, I don't agree with their stance on immigration as it ignores the role of U.S. corporations, and the governments (including ours) that they buy and pay for, in destroying the economies of countries in the Global South - driving immigrants from those countries here in search of better conditions. Still, I just don't know enough about them to say that I think they are definitely good or bad at this point. And there's no way I can back eliminating 40B without a demonstrably better alternative coming on line at the same time. So, for this election cycle, this publication is going to have to back the progressive housing activists and policy experts we know over the possibly progressive sustainable development activists we don't know.
To sum up, Open Media Boston says vote "No, No, and No" on Massachusetts Ballot Questions 1, 2, and 3. As ever, if viewers have something to say about that position - our comments section is open.
Check out the Ballotpedia pages for each ballot question for more information - and be sure to add to the Ballotpedia entries if you have information they haven't already covered:
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston