By physical dimensions, Michael S. Dukakis is no giant. But the Massachusetts governor, who is substantially less than six feet, sometimes stands tall in facing challenges. One of those occasions was his speedy veto of the $280 million to $600 million tax-reduction measure, rushed through the state legislature late July 10 and early July 11.
From a political standpoint, the easy way out would have been for Governor Dukakis to go along with the lawmakers and to hope the commonwealth could get along without the revenue from income taxes. But such a move, as pleasing as it might have been to many taxpayers across the state, would be an act of fiscal irresponsibility that could invite a deficit in Bay State coffers - if not this year then in the near future.
A deficit is something nobody wants, least of all Dukakis. Under those circumstances, he would be forced to recommend a tax increase or sharp reductions in various state programs, as was necessary in 1975 (the first year of his first term as governor).
It's not certain the tax cuts crafted by the legislature would have surrendered money the state needs to remain solvent. But it is questionable whether the measure even began to fill Massachusetts' long-range need to overhaul the state tax structure.
To what extent pre-election politics played a role in the measure's passage may never be known. Yet there's little doubt its architects had an eye on the calendar and the fall election as they pulled the measure together and shoved it through the House and Senate just hours before the summer recess.
If the legislators had been less anxious to please taxpayers with a last-ditch tax cut before the Sept. 18 primary, more time could have been devoted to devising a better plan - one the state could live with more comfortably.
A tax break for senior citizens can hardly be faulted. The measure would have allowed people over 65 to claim tax-exempt status for $6,000 of unearned income over three years. But this may not be the best way to provide tax relief for the elderly - assuming the commonwealth could afford it.
The help for senior citizens - whose income flows mostly from dividends, capital gains, and other unearned income which are taxed at 10.75 percent - has considerable merit. So, too, do tax exemptions to benefit another group of Bay Staters.
The vetoed measure also attempted to single out for preferential treatment the earnings of married taxpayers, of any age, with a nonworking spouse. This proposal, produced by Senate Ways and Means chairman Chester G. Atkins (D) of Concord, would increase the extra exemption for the couple from $1,000 to $1,500 next January, to $1,800 in 1986, $2,100 in 1987, and $2,400 in 1988. Also provided was a boost from $2,000 to $2,200 in a single taxpayer's personal exemption, and from $4,400 to $4,800 in the taxable income of a married couple with two wage-earners. And the add-on exemptions allowed an extra $200 exemption for the blind, senior citizens, and each dependant.
House minority leader William G. Robinson (R) of Melrose, the chief architect and sponsor of the three-stage exemption on unearned income of persons over 65, wanted to provide a home-mortgage credit exemption as well. Democratic colleagues, however, would buy only the unearned income exemption. For senior citizens, that would mean a $2,000 exemption for the single taxpayer and a $2, 200 exemption for a married couple, starting in January. The exemption would climb to $4,000 and $4,400 in 1986, and reach $6,000 and $6,600 in 1987.
In its zeal to help, the legislature substantially overlooked elderly citizens whose income comes from interest on deposits in Massachusetts banks. Nary a penny of this, which is taxed at 5.35 percent, would be exempt.
If nothing else, this legislation is litle more than a frail substitute for a long-overdue, far-reaching reform of the Massachusetts tax structure. If they had not been less timid - and less eager to make themselves look good in the eyes of the electorate - the senators and representatives could have spent more time, or started months earlier, to formulate a balanced measure based on equity instead of what some might call political grandstanding.
The governor would like nothing better than to play a role in cutting taxes. And it may be that he would support, if not initiate, a move in that direction perhaps as early as next year. Much will depend on whether lawmakers, angered by last week's veto, succeed in gaining the required two-thirds votes in both chambers to override him - something that would be a lot harder to manage after the November election, when some lawmakers are more interested in spending tax dollars than in not collecting them in the first place.
Before legislators decide if there should be a tax reduction of any type, they should ask themselves whether there is a likelihood of a revenue surplus that year. More important, they should consider whether such a cut can be sustained in future years, especially in fiscally leaner times.
Currently, nobody knows how many extra dollars will be lying around at the end of the fiscal budget year next June. Part of the answer hinges on the outcome of several measures still pending before the legislature, such as the MassBank proposal to provide funding for renewing roads, bridges, and other public-works projects around the state. Clearly, it would be difficult to get such a venture under way if, at the same time, the state was collecting fewer tax dollars to help finance it.
What is needed is a long-range blueprint for overhauling the state and local tax structure.
Instead of beginning a battle over the vetoed tax-cut measure, Governor Dukakis and legislative leaders would better employ their talents by creating a new high-level task force, comprising representatives from both government branches as well as private-sector business and civic groups.
After public hearings had been held around the state, the panel could have its recommendations ready for the opening of the 1986-87 legislature in January, where work could begin on a more realistic and fairer tax structure for the commonwealth and its revenue-pinched cities and towns.