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Pitching Politics

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tim Dodd
February 2, 2018

On January 16, 2013, then Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, announced a bold plan to increase the state income tax, while lowering the state sales tax during his State of the Commonwealth address. I was fortunate to have to sit on the floor of the House of Representatives that evening and saw the frustrated, curious and quizzical looks of lawmakers as they heard, for the first time, a bold proposal to generate $1.9 billion in new revenue. Unlike many tax increases proposed by politicians, Governor Patrick articulated his goal of using the funding to invest in education and transportation to “accelerate growth and expand opportunity.” Yes, he asked lawmakers and, by extension, the general public, to support higher taxes and in turn less money in their pockets. However, he did it by making a pitch, asking for additional funding while articulating what they would get out of it.

Governor Patrick’s plan included a proposed one percent income tax increase from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent, and a proposed 1.75 percent decrease 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent, along with other changes to the tax code. In his “State of the Commonwealth” address, the Governor proposed the plan would generate $1.9 billion in new revenue, dedicating the funds to investments in transportation and education.

In his speech, Governor Patrick stated, “Everyone of us here has to think twice before asking people who already feel strapped to contribute a little more… The people we work for want the schools I have described; they want the rail and road services we have laid out; and above all they want the opportunity and growth these investments will bring us. We on their behalf have choices to make. I choose growth.” This bold statement called for action on the part of lawmakers, asking them to increase taxes with a specific purpose in mind.

Legislators from both parties expressed concern over paying additional taxes. Certainly, much of that concern comes from the simple fact that more taxes mean more money coming out of, in many cases, already stretched checkbooks. Struggling to put food on the table, lowering the amount of money going into a retirement plan or putting off that family vacation for another year were concerns expressed by voters across the Commonwealth. Another reason, a lack of faith in politicians, stems from a series of broken promises with public officials increasing taxes while taxpayers were left struggling to understand what they received in return.

Yes, Governor Patrick asked legislators to increase taxes, a hard proposition to make, even a year and a half away from an election. However, unlike many politicians, he articulated a purpose behind the ask, detailing that extra funding would go to education and transportation — two issues that are almost always on the top of mind of voters across Massachusetts, and across the United States. During his short campaign to push for his proposal, his administration made detailed maps of each state senate and representative district, showing that the proposal would repair a bridge in one district and take 80 students off the early childhood waiting list in another. In his speech he acknowledged, “There is no good time to raise taxes… I would not ask if I did not believe in my heart that investing meaningfully today in education and transportation will significantly improve our economic tomorrows.”

Most members of the legislature, from both parties, as well as the general public expressed frustration with a plan that they perceived as simply another attempt by a politician to take more of their hard-earned money. The responses, though were not all negative. A group 57 economist signed a statement supporting the plan, specifically arguing for the long-term benefits of investing in early childhood education. Additionally, a group of educators and union leaders also supported the plan, also arguing for the support of education.

Ultimately, the legislature did not support the proposal, and as a result it never moved forward. While we will never know the impact that extra funding could have had on education and transportation in Massachusetts, we can reflect on a bold approach to clearly articulate how tax dollars would be spent. In addition to honestly asking taxpayers to pay more for a specific purpose, Governor Patrick also injected a business principal into politics. People pay taxes to their local state and federal government, as required by law, without consideration of specific services government provides. In the private sector, people choose to pay for goods and services based on a variety of factors, such as geographical proximity, cost and quality. Governor Patrick changed the choice from increased taxes to increased educational programs and transportation services. While the legislature ultimately kept the focus on increase taxes, and chose not to move in that direction, this approach could serve as a model for other politicians who ask for more and treat taxpayers as consumers, giving them a choice between paying more for better services or paying the same for the same services.

Author: Tim Dodd is the Chief Performance Officer for the City of Santa Monica, CA, previously serving as the Performance Manager for the City of Baltimore and Director of Performance Management for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. [email protected]

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