The tax horse is out of the revenue barn

Gov Deval Patrick, who rode into office on a promise of reducing property taxes, has come full circle on the T-word with the stark realities of the economy smacking him and his agenda squarely in the face.

It wasn't that long ago that the governor would rather have had his tongue cut out than utter the phrase "tax increase." And even as the fiscal storm began blowing gale-like winds, Patrick's proposals were mainly centered around finding "efficiencies" in delivering services, making systematic cuts, and allowing cities and towns to close exemptions and loopholes to offset a decrease in revenues.

But in announcing his latest round of cuts today to close the growing $1.4 billion budget gap and proposing his $27.97 billion Fiscal Year 2010 budget, Patrick cracked the door open for statewide tax hikes and may have kicked down the portal for allowing future increases in areas such as the gas tax now that he took that first step to admit he was powerless over increases and the state revenue projections were unmanageable.

Sure there was talk in Room 157 of streamlining such as bringing the remaining county sheriffs into the state fold, selling off surplus state land, reemphasizing a $128 million hit on local aid, level funding Chapter 70 next year and changing the rules so charter schools would have to bring in more of the high cost students such as special needs students. And Patrick reintroduced his Municipal Partnership Act that would, among other things, eliminate the property tax exemption on telecommunicaiton infrastructure and give local officials a freer hand to move employees into the Group Insurance Commission by eliminating the requirement for 70 percent union approval.

Patrick also is once again diving into the state's stabilization fund, otherwise known as the Rainy Day fund, for another $327 million this year and $586 million for FY 2010 and there's a big hope relying on the kindness of President Obama, with Patrick factoring in $1.24 billion from the economic stimulus package before it's even finalized, let alone passed.

But the biggest news was Patrick's willingness to increase or expand state taxes and fees to bring in an estimated $260 million in revenues as well as allowing cities and towns to tack a 1 percentage point hike onto the hotel/motel and meals taxes to raise another estimate $200 million for local coffers.

Folks with a sweet tooth will be paying for that indulgence and it won't just be in the dentist's chair. Patrick's proposal would expand the sales tax to candy and sweetened beverages as well as to alcohol, all currently exempt. The governor is also eyeing an expansion of the bottle bill to cover noncarbonated beverages such as plain and flavored water, sports drinks, juices and coffee-based beverages. Patrick's people estimate about $20 million in unclaimed nickels will go into the state's escheat fund from that.

All of that is on top of increasing Registry of Motor Vehicle fees by nearly $75 million.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

Patrick was clearly uncomfortable with the term "tax hike," correcting one reporter on the candy and drinks as being "eliminating an exemption, not an increase." And he called the sales and meals hikes "a penny increase," until one reporter rightfully pointed out it was a 20 percent increase over the current 5 percent.

Tough to say how this will play in the Legislature but as the budget holes keep getting bigger, reluctance may turn to grudging approval. And like they say, once you do something once, it gets easier the second time around.