Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Asking tough questions

Here is my column this week from The Winchester Star:

"If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention"
- bumpersticker

A few months back, I heard about a Northampton-based group, The National Priorities Project, that used census data to figure out the amount of federal tax dollars cities and towns were contributing to the invasion of Iraq. The group posted the figures on its Web site,, and then requested other towns to analyze. So I asked about Winchester's share and the amount was staggering: $31.8 million. That's more than the fiscal year 2005 school budget! This is just one town's "contribution" to the invasion effort. It is a significant statistic in light of the events of recent weeks. So, do you think the money is being well spent?

Last week, the public finally got a chance to see a bit more of the bad side of war.

Tami Silicio, a cargo worker stationed in Kuwait, took pictures of some of the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers being shipped back to the states. Silicio sent the pictures to The Seattle Times and was subsequently fired for doing so. Covering the injuries and death of soldiers is an important part of any war story that needs to be told. It is also one of the main reasons we should be more careful when sending soldiers off to fight and die. But why did this take so long to get into the papers?

There was another story last week that was pretty shocking and probably missed by a lot of people.

It was a small piece in The Saratogian about New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton introducing legislation to increase the amount of education money for developing nations an additional $300 million to $2.5 billion by 2009. This is on top of the $31.5 billion already earmarked for foreign aid in fiscal year 2005. So while the federal government is crippling cities and towns like Winchester by refusing to pay for its "No Child Left Behind" legislation, it is handing off billions of our tax dollars to educate kids overseas. It just doesn't seem right, does it?

There has been a lot of talk about the budget crunch in Massachusetts. However, the problem seems to be that they are always trying to find new revenue in the wrong places.

Take Rep. Robert Spellane, a Democrat from Worcester, who, for whatever reason, can't take "no" for an answer. He filed legislation to raise the income tax back up to 5.95 percent - retroactively to January. Not only would residents be taxed more at the state level but they would have to cough up an additional $325 on next year's tax returns! Thankfully, the bill was defeated earlier this week.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not someone who believes there shouldn't be any taxes. We all know the state needs money. But if you want to pay more in taxes, you can. On the state tax returns, there is a check-off that allows filers to choose to pay the higher rate. Shockingly - or not so - few people take advantage of the check-off. The Boston Herald recently reported that only 734 out of 2.1 million tax returns showed taxpayers opting to pay the higher rate. So is it fair to force everyone to pay for higher taxes when those people who want them don't bother to pay them?

The larger problem with the current state income tax is not that the rate is too low; it is that there are all kinds of entities that are currently paying very little in income tax.

For example, most people don't know that some banks and financial institutions in our state pay the minimum state income tax of $456. The average Winchester resident pays six or seven times that amount. A billion dollar bank pays almost nothing while ordinary folks struggling with higher property taxes pay many times more. Then there is the single-sales tax law set up to benefit some defense contractors. They've escaped paying over $400 million in the last seven years.

Where is the fairness?

We all know there is waste of one kind or another at the state and federal levels. Currently, the Legislature is reported to have a travel budget of about $21 million. The money is used to fund junkets so the governor, the speaker, their minions and their friends in the business community can go to exotic lands and dig up business for Massachusetts companies. But does it really yield any new jobs?

Then, there is the money used to boost the staffers of elected legislators, rumored to be over $1 million annually. These funds were created to give incumbents more money to play with in light of the Clean Election funds that challengers might receive. But guess what? Speaker Tom Finneran and his cronies killed the Clean Election law in 2002 - yet kept the extra staffing funds. Nice of them, huh? Wouldn't all this money be better spent educating our children?

The desire for good government isn't ideological. Numerous stories have been written about waste, fraud, and abuse by different sectors. From the Big Dig project on down, from foreign aid to peso bailouts, the problem remains that elected officials refuse to fix these issues for the betterment of all of us. Sometimes, it can all appear so overwhelming.

But is it safer just to ignore the problems, never ask questions, and put blinders on so we don't have to see or deal with any of this? Are ordinary folks powerless to change anything? What can one person do anyway? Let's be honest: These are tough questions. But reform in any of these areas could make all our lives much easier. Isn't that something we should all be trying to accomplish?

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