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Legislators will regret kicking props out from under Prop. 2

LIKE the old gray mare, Proposition 2 ``just ain't what it used to be.'' The property-tax restriction statute, passed by Massachusetts voters in 1980, has been weakened by state lawmakers. Legislators changed the local two-thirds vote required for a tax-cap override to a simple majority.

Although the excuse for the debatable move was to help Plymouth raise funds to open a new regional school with neighboring Carver, the effects seem certain to be far reaching. It could trigger a round of property-tax hikes. In the future it will be harder for foes of marginally supported spending proposals to hold the line on property taxes.

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The more than $6 million funding increase sought by Plymouth, which in April and June twice failed to win two-thirds support at town meetings, will be back on the ballot Aug. 8. But this time only a majority vote will be needed.

Critics of the proposal warn that it could raise the real estate tax rate by as much as 20 percent at a time when Boston Edison's Pilgrim nuclear-power plant, the town's biggest taxpayer, is closed and faces an uncertain future.

Without the school crisis in Plymouth, it is doubted that an attempt to wipe out the two-thirds override requirement would have succeeded. Despite lobbying from public-employee unions and special-interest groups bent on making it easier to raise municipal budgets, legislators were reluctant to weaken 2.

While hardly a proposition booster, Gov. Michael Dukakis has helped cushion cities and towns by greatly increasing local aid from the commonwealth.

Once the bill repealing the two-thirds override cleared the House and Senate, Mr. Dukakis's signature was virtually certain, even though such approval was bound to displease some would-be fiscal reformers. Were it not for the Plymouth situation he might have thought twice before going along with the measure, since the two-thirds requirement was something most cities and towns seem to have been able to live with comfortably.

Since 1981, when Prop. 2 took effect, backers of 37 override proposals, in 23 cities and towns, have gained the required two-thirds support. Another 40 proposals managed a majority. Some 57 proposals fell short of that mark.

Buoyed by their success, proposition foes can be expected to press for other changes. This has to concern Barbara Anderson, the executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, the group that with the High Tech Council teamed to push enactment of Prop. 2. Without her watchfulness the proposition might long since have been quietly dessimated.

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As more difficult as it may become to block voter approval of certain pet projects of local officials, such opposition efforts are certainly not a lost cause, even with the two-thirds vote requirement gone. All that the override provision allows is for municipal tax revenues to rise more than 2.5 percent above those of the previous year, plus an additional 2.5 percent with local voter approval.

The law still restricts a community's total tax yield in any year to no more than 2.5 percent of the combined fair market value of all real estate within its boundaries. And that's it.

Some backers of the new law, led by Rep. Peter Forman (R) of Plymouth, to their credit, sought to have the amendment include an ``underride'' feature. This would permit voters, by local ballot, to reduce local tax levels. The House went along with the idea but the Senate wanted no part of it, and the measure finally produced by House-Senate conferees does not provide for underrides.

Thus more taxing days are ahead for many Massachusetts property owners.

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