The hard fact about taxes is that Massachusetts may well need more
Thanks considerably to Proposition 21/2, Massachusetts has been able to shed its least-cherished nickname - ''Taxachusetts.'' But the image improvement may be short-lived. Warnings of another round of increased taxes can hardly be discounted.
Obviously, higher levies are something nobody wants, least of all Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and those whose billfolds could be squeezed hardest.
Yet thus far there is little to suggest that current efforts to hold the spending line, by either the governor or the state legislature, are going to be effective. State spending is climbing at a faster rate than revenues.
Sooner or later, and very possibly during the current fiscal year, the commonwealth's coffers not only will be empty, but piles of unpaid bills will begin to accumulate.
Unlike the federal government, Massachusetts cannot legally build up a deficit, even if that approach were moderately tolerable. That leaves state lawmakers with the agonizing choice of saying ''no'' a lot more often than they would like to or, reluctantly and as inconspicuously as possible, climbing on the tax-boost express.
The highly respected Massachusetts Taxpayers' Foundation (MTF) has been warning of this. It is uncertain, however, whether those to whom such ''proceed with caution'' messages are directed are listening.
Such apparent disregard for what the MTF has been saying is demonstrated by Governor Dukakis in his continued support for some of the more costly portions of the pending $300 million to $500 million public education reform legislation. At the same time, a general lack of sensitivity among legislators to the fiscal storm signals is underscored by the recent House approval of generous salary hikes for court clerks throughout the commonwealth. Governor Dukakis, it should be emphasized, has indicated his opposition to such a measure, which would cost the state $1.8 million and hoist the compensation, in two stages, for the 406 clerks and assistant clerks from the present maximum of $38,000 a year to $54, 000 by mid-l986.
Even were raises in order for these often politically pampered court officials, the 23 percent called for in the current measure has to be viewed as lawmaker extravagance. Since so many legislators seem incapable of resisting the temptation to provide raises for themselves and others, perhaps a special commission, established through a state constitutional amendment, should be appointed to recommend what various public employees not covered by collective-bargaining contracts should be paid. This might inject a bit of equity into the state salary structure, a quality largely missing under the current system.
Although the pending pay-raise legislation may seem like only a drop in the bucket, the commonwealth clearly needs to save every penny it can if higher taxes are to be averted. Clearly there are not enough senators and representatives watching the state's piggy bank. Even those who are doing so, like State Rep. Richard T. Moore (D) of Uxbridge, tend to blame the executive branch for spending too much. They conveniently ignore the fact that not a dime can be spent for anything unless it is appropriated by the legislature. Mr. Moore, the House chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Taxation, now threatens to lead a taxpayers' revolt against spiraling state spending. He foresees a $500 million budget deficit in fiscal 1987 (the 12 months beginning July 1, 1986).
Moore agrees with the Taxpayers' Foundation that money is going out at twice the rate that it is coming into state coffers and says that ''this can only result in a very substantial increase in state taxes within the next two years.'' The Blackstone Valley legislator, who also is co-chairman of the newly established Special Commission on Tax Reform, states that it will take ''an extraordinary level of political courage'' to chart a course that will keep Massachusetts on solid financial footing.
The new 15-member panel, made up of legislators and gubernatorial appointees, is being counted on to suggest improvements in the state and local revenue structure. It may be recalled that the now-defunct Master Tax Plan Commission, between 1967 and 1971, was similarly engaged. Some of that group's recommendations, such as increasing the personal income tax, were later adopted by state lawmakers. Most of the other proposals, including broadening the state's limited sales tax, got nowhere. Also still collecting Beacon Hill dust is a proposal setting forth the percentage of total state and municipal revenue that could be raised from various levies.
Whether the new study panel will come up with a similar potentially balanced package of tax yield goals is uncertain, as is whether any increased or new levies might be suggested.
State lawmakers, for reasons known best to themselves, provided no deadlines for the project, for which $300,000 has been appropriated thus far. Still it is reasonable to assume some kind of recommendations may be ready by April 1986, when Robert Tannenwald, the commission's executive director, is to return to his post as an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Ideally, with the considerable research legacy of the Master Tax Plan Commission available, it should not take all that long to come up with a possible new revenue blueprint. But with state legislators holding eight of the 15 commission seats, there just might be great sense of urgency to get the job over with. For reasons more political than practical, it just might be decided to put off any recommendations, especially those relating even to a modest overhaul of the state-local tax structure, until late in 1986, after the gubernatorial and legislative election.
By then, unless Massachusetts quickly and substantially mends its fiscal ways , a revenue crisis every bit as serious as the one that faced the commonwealth when Governor Dukakis began his first term in January 1976 could be at hand or lurking in the shadows.
In any event, there is no way the powers that be on Beacon Hill could be expected to approve new taxes before late 1986 or even 1987, even if fiscal responsibility might dictate otherwise.