In California, Prop 13 leagcy means no icing on cake in Massachusetts, very little cake

After living with Proposition 21/2 for a year, most Massachusetts voters seem content to let the property-tax-cutting law keep slashing away at local budgets.

Prop 21/2, approved by voters in November 1980, requires cities and towns to cut property taxes by 15 percent a year until total taxes are no greater than 21 /2 percent of the total value of property in the community. Together with California's tax-capping Proposition 13, the Massachusetts law is being carefully watched nationally as an indicator of the effects of reduced local government spending.

The latest opportunity to object to the controversial law came June 22 in Worcester, the state's second-largest city after Boston. Voters there overwhelmingly rejected a special referendum that would have only partially overridden some second-year cuts. The city joined a number of smaller communities that have rejected overrides of Prop 21/2. Cambridge, Mass., which voted strongly to override on April 13, remains a major exception to the trend.

Prop 21/2 went fully in effect on July 1, 1981. Now, after a year of belt-tightening, some assessments are being made:

* The effect on towns has varied widely. ''It's had an erratic effect,'' says James W. Segel, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. ''It's been like a tornado that skips and jumps and hits some communities harder than others.''

Local needs and property tax rates differ greatly between towns, Mr. Segel notes. Worcester, for example, has a high property tax rate but also has heavy demand for government services. By not overriding 21/2, voters forced layoffs of teachers and police officers, closed fire stations, and shut off more than 1,000 street lights, according to the Worcester city manager.

* Towns have delayed needed projects.

The most serious future effects, adds Mr. Segel, are likely to be on local ''infrastructure'' - roads, bridges, sewers, and other vital services that have been neglected. With more than one-third of the state population living in towns that must make further cuts this year, ''local communities are going to continue to be under tremendous pressure,'' says economist Helen F. Ladd, coauthor of a study released in April by the Joint Center for Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University.

For an estimated 20,000 workers who lost jobs due to Prop 21/2, the law has imposed a major disruption in their lives. But at the same time ''every community has gotten through the first year without a major disaster,'' says Mr. Segel. ''Much about 21/2 has been beneficial. It has forced communities to reexamine their priorities, their services and contracts, things that were politically unfeasible before.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.