A Warning on Overrides

Source:  Barbara Anderson, “From Barbara Anderson, a little history,” Boston Globe, May 5, 2008
A quick retrospective for those who weren’t Massachusetts taxpayers before the Great Tax Revolt in 1980:
There was no control on property taxes, so they ranged from highest to third highest in the world, year to year. The local public employee unions, other spending interests, and people who could easily afford higher taxes packed town meetings or intimidated city councils.
Incredibly, the educational establishment had a thing called “school committee fiscal autonomy.” This meant that the school committee had to be given whatever budget it demanded, unless the town went to court, where it usually lost. When taxpayers complained at a school committee meeting, they were ignored.
So they rebelled by passing Proposition 2 ½, which limited property taxes AND repealed “school committee fiscal autonomy.” Local managers, able to finally get some control over school budgets, looked there first for savings. So when you hear that “education was devastated by Prop 2 ½,” it was merely treated, for the first time, like other town departments. Even today, per pupil expenditures are among the highest in the nation.
You will also hear that “overrides are a legitimate part of Proposition 2 ½.” Well, yes, in that we created an override provision as a safety net to cover emergencies and other unanticipated expenses, like a court judgment. Voters were so angry in 1980 that it never occurred to us that they would vote to raise their taxes to pay for operating expenses, including employee pay raises and benefits that exceed their own.
Property taxes and the total per capita tax burden are still far above the national average in Massachusetts. But at least taxpayers have some control, and are generally treated more politely by school committees that might want their override vote. It’s only when an override fails that they hear they selfishly don’t care about either education or “the children;” and for override advocates, more is never enough.
This year, forced to recognize that some people can’t afford to pay more, override proponents are stating their sympathy before arguing for the override anyhow. Clearly they don’t care that a tax increase is a pay cut for people on fixed incomes, or who are unemployed; sometimes they suggest that such people might want to live somewhere else that is more affordable for them. At a Marblehead Town Meeting several years ago, a woman responded to a senior citizen’s concern that “if you can’t afford this, perhaps you aren’t managing your portfolio properly.” Perhaps.
After hearing about “the suffering children in Wellesley” shortly after Prop 2 ½ passed, I tuned out on the tales of woe. But now it’s clear that serious problems do lie ahead for Massachusetts cities and towns if they don’t get control over public employee benefits and special education costs. State laws must be changed, unions must be confronted, reforms must be made. Voters who allow overrides, stand in the way of necessary change – and of Governor Patrick’s campaign promise for “property tax relief.”
Readers can learn more at our website, www.cltg.org.
— Barbara Anderson Executive Director Citizens for Limited Taxation