Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rocky Ride Ahead for City Leaders

Boston City Councilors began 2008 last Monday with memories of Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, Weepin’ Willie Robinson, and the most anemic local election in several years.

In her inaugural address, Council President Maureen Feeney brought up the low turnout last November as one reason for having a citywide forum of community groups. The forum would take place in April, at the Mass. Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston.

“It is incumbent upon this body to do our part to increase our citizens’ civic engagement,” said Feeney, in an address beginning her second term as Council president.

Feeney said she wanted the forum to “start a conversation about the city’s civic health and vitality.” Along with providing training and support for activists, she said, she wants an event that “raises people’s expectations and understanding of their government.”

If her idea had some logic, the timing was less than ideal, coming midway between high turnout competitions for President in Iowa and New Hampshire. Mayor Thomas Menino has greeted the idea of the forum with skepticism, though not without trying to influence the agenda. Right after Feeney’s address, Menino said there should be talk about the city’s need for new revenue and the obstacles to local option taxes posed by the State House.

“I think it’s a very gloomy future,” said Menino, “when it comes to revenue for our city.”

What the mayor did not say was that the forum would fail to stir interest. With a large presidential turnout expected in November, even a modest springtime surge in civic engagement is hard to rule out. But so is a voter backlash in the fall, especially if a high turnout in Massachusetts also gets a chance to vote on abolishing the state income tax.

The past year brought about some improvements in public safety and the Boston Public Schools, and the improvements came with higher spending. Both areas continue to have serious problems (starting with gun violence and the dropout rate), and no elected official denies the need for even more improvement.

But city and state officials also warn that meeting expectations this year will become more difficult. To begin with, the United States is all but certain to experience a recession. While worse in some other parts of the country, the subprime mortgage meltdown has taken a severe toll on parts of Boston, with prices down from peak levels in some neighborhoods by as much as 31% for single-family homes and 9% for condominiums. Even if the figures reflect more volatility than value, they’re certainly cause for worry.

Any decrease in state revenue will affect cities and towns when it comes to local aid and money for education, not to mention the state’s new health program. And, as the Boston Municipal Research Bureau warns, declining enrollment in the Boston Public Schools will result in less money from the federal government’s Title I reading program.

It remains to be seen whether the campaign to abolish the state income tax will be on the ballot, let alone prevail. But this year’s campaign has already met its first signature goal. When the measure was on the ballot in 2002, abolition received 45% of the vote, despite a campaign with a low budget and low profile.

There’s no question that the result of abolishing the income tax--cutting the state budget by 39%--will, in different quarters, meet with either fervent opposition or fervent support. The task for leaders on either side of the question is to win over the many other people with mixed feelings: people who know they get something of value from the public sector, but who are also financially stretched and sometimes infuriated by certain spending decisions. Rather than embrace or reject a fully developed tax policy, many of these voters in the middle will simply send a message.

It was during the presidential election year of 1980 when voters approved the limits on local property taxes in Proposition 2½. This was the same election in which Massachusetts favored Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. This year, the unpopular incumbent happens to be a Republican, but he’s not on the ballot. If this year’s economic downturn somehow stops short of a recession, it will hardly be much better than the mix of stagnation and higher prices in 1980. And even if most of the recent growth in the tax burden (especially as a percentage of income) is from the property tax, that hardly takes the income tax off the hook.

If voters do abolish the income tax, the changes in the short term will be more dramatic, since Proposition 2½ only put the brakes on tax growth. State legislators and Governor Patrick could always fill some gaps by introducing or increasing other levies, though it’s much too early to say what these would mean for revenue amounts or distribution of the tax burden.

Another lesson from 1980 is that voters who send messages react to messages from elected officials. Two years earlier, Governor Michael Dukakis had campaigned for re-election with a growing budget surplus, part of which he used to increase local aid. None of that increase went into lower property taxes for people in Boston, and Dukakis lost the Democratic primary to Ed King (who supported the forerunner of Proposition 2½, California's Propositon 13). Intended as such or not, there was a message from Dukakis and Boston Mayor Kevin White. White won his fourth straight term in 1979, but when it came time to vote on Proposition 2½, some of its supporters in Boston included public employees and civically engaged people who depended on government programs they really valued.

After Proposition 2½, there were cutbacks, whether measured in MBTA service (partially funded by cities and towns) or in the closing of schools, police stations, and firehouses. There were layoffs and plenty of acrimony. More than a quarter of a century later, it’s possible to say some of the cutbacks were justified. Even the local budget constraints have been offset—more than Proposition 2½ opponents predicted--by periods of growth in the real estate market and the state budget. And no one’s trying to have Proposition 2½ repealed.

It’s even possible that adjusting to abolition of the state income tax will be no more difficult. If leaders—whether the elected or the civically engaged—have any doubts about that, the time to send a message has arrived.