An initiative to keep a 3 cents per-gallon gasoline tax increase from rising even higher in the future without a vote from state legislators has been drawing national attention recently — largely because it is taking place in Massachusetts, a state long synonymous with higher taxes.
Having secured a position on the fall ballot and with little money to propel it, the initiative to thwart an automatic rise in the gas tax by linking it to inflation could have an impact on other states if Bay State voters pass it this fall.
As Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, told Newsmax, "Any time a tax cut passes in blue-state Massachusetts, it gives hope to taxpayers everywhere. In other words, if we can do it, so can they."
Veteran Massachusetts political consultant Holly Robichaud told Newsmax: "You have to remember that Massachusetts is the birthplace of the American Revolution and citizen outrage against 'taxation without representation.' And that's about what happened here last year."
She was referring to a vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts Legislature for a $500 million tax package. Buried within the package was the 3 cents per gallon tax increase. But far more significantly, the package also included language stating that the gas tax would now be linked to inflation.
"That means when inflation goes up, so does the gas tax — automatically, and without a vote by elected representatives," Robichaud explained. "Theoretically, it could rise to infinity and beyond."
Her view was strongly seconded by veteran tax battler Edward F. King, chairman of King Information Systems, founder of Citizens for Limited Taxation, and a Republican candidate for governor in 1978.
"Linking the gas tax to inflation was driven by the same philosophy that drove the graduated income tax," King told Newsmax. "Legislators get a bigger percentage of taxes without having to vote for a tax increase."
Although the potentially explosive linkage of the gas tax hike to inflation was largely ignored in the press, Robichaud, with her political ear to the ground, called a meeting at her Scituate home. Over Chinese food, activist Republicans, including former U.S. House candidate Marty Lamb, state Rep. Geoff Diehl, and GOP State Committeeman Steve Aylward plotted how to stop the tax link to inflation from becoming law.
Out of the meeting came language for a proposed statewide initiative that would not repeal the gas tax increase, but decouple it from inflation. As Robichaud explained, "We wanted the debate to be about automatic tax hikes. I think the debate on the principle is more important than 3 cents."
What also began at that meeting was nothing short of a genuine grass-roots movement. With nine weeks to collect 76,000 certified signatures required for a position on the November 2014 ballot and less than $10,000 in their coffers, more than 600 volunteers fanned out across the state last fall to meet the November deadline. When it came, they turned in more than 120,000 signatures.
"May 6 was the deadline for the state Legislature to approve [us] for a ballot position," recalled Robichaud, "They didn't, so we had to go out and collect 11,000 more certified signatures. We collected more than 26,000 raw signatures." The secretary of state finally certified the measure for the November ballot.
Recently, the gas tax measure has gotten fresh publicity because of the stumble of the official who approved its language: state Attorney General Martha Coakley, considered the front-running Democratic candidate for governor in the September primary. In an interview earlier this year, Coakley said the gas tax was only 10 cents per gallon.
It's 24 cents per gallon.
"You would think she would know the gas tax is 24 cents," likely Republican nominee Charles Baker told reporters. "And to guess that it's 10 cents, which it hasn't been since 1983, I just think speaks to the fact that she's clearly completely out of touch with regular people."
For her part, initiative starter Robichaud believes that grass-roots support for her brainchild can translate into net gains for Republicans in the state Legislature, where they are vastly outnumbered by Democrats in both the House and Senate.
"I think it will win, since Holly has sensibly set it up with the emphasis on the automatic future tax hike, not repealing the recent increase," said Barbara Anderson. "The idea of any tax hikes being automatic inspires fear in the heart of any taxpayer. If the gas tax, why not the income tax, sales tax, property tax, growing every year automatically by inflation."
The initiative's opponents "will spend a lot of money to defeat it," she said. "But 2014 should, in general, be a year of revolt — I hope."
Robichaud added: "And once it passes, even if you aren't living in Massachusetts, you'll know about it."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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