Boston Mayor Flynn's campaign for new taxes entering crucial weeks

Fulfillment of Mayor Raymond L. Flynn's hopes for new tax sources for Boston depend on cooperation from state legislators and their leaders -- and on whether he has succeeded in rallying public opinion behind a cause that has foundered in the past. Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn has been spending about as much time on Beacon Hill lately as he did when he was a member of the Massachusetts Legislature.

At the risk of wearing out his State House welcome -- which became considerably frayed last spring -- the Hub's chief executive is pressing for more dollars to run his city.

Although it is too early to gauge how successful the mayor might be in his current lobbying effort, there is substantial agreement by those close to the scene that the next few weeks are crucial.

Somewhat encouraging has been the moral support from House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett, Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, all three of whom have indicated their commitment to helping the capital city.

But they are not tripping over each other to lend even lukewarm backing to the revenue relief package crafted by Mayor Flynn. He seeks authorization for Boston to levy a parking excise tax, an entertainment tax, and an increased tax on hotel-motel room charges.

There is general agreement among these government leaders, however, that something should be done, and the time is at hand.

While the mayor obviously views his proposal as the best he and his fiscal aides can come up with, he makes it clear it is not cast in concrete, and that if state lawmakers can devise a satisfactory alternative, he would welcome it.

Whether any of the Flynn measures fly in the Legislature, and how far, could hinge substantially not only on the mayor's personal lobbying, but perhaps to an even greater degree the grass-roots spade work he did earlier this year in moving around the commonwealth.

The thrust of the mayoral message, in his discussions with local community leaders and lawmakers alike, is that although Boston would benefit from the Flynn legislation, so would other revenue-squeezed cities and towns. Individual municipalities would simply have the option of imposing certain new taxes instead of having to depend almost entirely on the property tax and whatever state aid might be available for financing their operations.

Certainly Boston and perhaps several other cities and towns where the impact of Proposition 21/2 has proved particularly challenging, could be expected to take advantage of any enlarged revenue sources. State lawmakers from these poorer communities thus may be more inclined to go along with some, if not all, of the new potential levies than colleagues from elsewhere.

Without the votes those legislators, prospects for passage of almost any type of legislation to provide municipal fiscal relief appear slim.

Of the three Flynn tax proposals, the most familiar, and the most likely to be approved, is the one for a 15 percent parking excise tax. Similar legislation came close to winning House approval last June, after a strong lobbying effort by the Boston mayor. Had the legislative election campaign not been under way, with some state representatives facing tough challenges, Mayor Flynn just might have been able to get that tax-expansion authorization through both the House and Senate.

Much of the opposition to a parking excise levy stems from lawmaker concern that constituents coming into Boston to work, shop, or just visit would have to come up with extra dollars.

No less controversial among the Flynn revenue measures could be the increase in the hotel-motel levy, which would be raised from 5.7 percent to 9 percent, with the additional money returned to the city or town involved.

Tourist industry resistance to any kind of boost in that tax could well make such a measure very difficult to sell, even though most of those who would be pay it would be from out of state.

From a competitive standpoint, a local-option hotel-motel tax increase could pose problems, perhaps encouraging some overnight guests to shy away from Boston in favor of a neighboring community with a lower rooms tax.

The 6 percent entertainment tax Mayor Flynn is seeking for Boston and other communities on a local option basis may not have all that much appeal to legislators whose districts would stand to gain little or nothing from such a levy but whose constituents would have to pay extra for tickets to the theater and sporting events elsewhere.

The three-part Flynn tax package represents close to $45 million a year in potential new revenue for Boston. Clearly, that would go a long way toward heading off the $57 million deficit that current projections indicate the city could face at the end of the fiscal year that begins July 1, 1985.

Clearly any solution to the Boston financial pinch will require more than just a broadened tax base. Because of this, Flynn is seeking substantially increased state funding of certain current municipal financing obligations. The most ambitious of these would significantly reduce the some $56 million Boston now pays toward the annual operating deficit of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). The mayor's sights also are set on state takeover of all Suffolk County costs borne by the city.

Both of these are old legislative chestnuts that have gone nowhere in the past and may be no easier to sell this time around.

Two other possible revenue producers for Boston may be more acceptable to the Legislature: payments in lieu of taxes by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and city taxation of private businesses on Massachusetts Port Authority property.

Mayor Flynn -- like his immediate predecessor, Kevin H. White, and most other former Boston chief executives over the past half-century -- is basing his case for new revenue on the substantial portion of property in the city that is tax-exempt.

Getting the turnpike authority and Massport tenants to kick in to the city coffers to pay for municipal services could be a step in the right direction.

The political obstacles to legislation aimed at provided long-term relief for Boston's financial problems are no less present than they have been in the past. But coming to grips with the Hub's legitimate revenue needs this year makes particular sense, since 1986 is both a legislative and gubernatorial election year. The conventional political wisdom still applies: Lawmakers seeking reelection aren't inclined to do anything that involves raising anyone's taxes.

Flynn has no choice but to push Boston's case unrelentingly on Beacon Hill. And if he can come away with even part of a loaf of fiscal aid, that will be a lot better than none.

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