Could a Graduated Income Tax Save the Mass GOP? (Field Notes from the House Budget Debate)

The House of Representatives started its annual budget debate yesterday, and as is customary, the first amendments to be considered concerned the topic of revenues. The 29 GOP Representatives were bursting with ideas — for tax credits, tax deductions, tax exemptions, tax holidays and tax cuts. Anything, in other words, to shrink revenues. And while they probably held little hope for the success of their proposals, this being an election year, defeat on the House floor just might turn into success at the ballot box come November.

Except that it hasn’t — and for such a long time. The Republicans have been failing to thrive in the Massachusetts legislature for decades — even in the relatively bountiful 1970’s, when Frank Sargent was governor and GOP giants from Massachusetts trod the earth in Washington. (In 1972, Republican John Volpe, former Governor, was Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation, Elliot Richardson, former Attorney General, was his Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and Edward Brooke, former Attorney General, served in the United States Senate.) Even then, Republicans held only 52 of the 240 House seats and seven of the 40 Senate seats.

To stave off the utter extinction of the party in the state legislature, conservative Boston Globe columnist David B. Wilson, the Jeff Jacoby of his day, urged them to embrace a different position on taxes. A position that, as their prescient Governor Sargent had already concluded in announcing his support, could resonate with Democrats and with Independents: a graduated income tax. Where, he asked, is the Republican officeholder willing to see in the graduated tax referendum a political opportunity?

Take it away, Mr. Wilson (Boston Globe, December 16, 1972):

There are good, sound, respectable ideological questions in this country today on which a conservative party stands to make ground once it recognizes that the word “conservative” is no longer a dirty word…The conservative positions on these issues are, one suspects, the political convictions of vast numbers of Democrats and Independents. They are intellectually respectable and they represent the interests of vast numbers of decent, worried, confused people. The Republican Party is the natural and appropriate vehicle for the expression of such views. So far it has betrayed itself by ignoring the opportunity. If it continues to do so, it is doomed to the status of an inconsiderable ethnic eccentricity.

In yesterday’s debate, the Republican proposals to cut the income and sales taxes met their usual fate in the House, and by the usual margins. So, next year, why not listen to some ancient GOP wisdom and try something different, like appealing to people’s sense of fairness instead of their resentments?

The Republican plan for a progressive income tax — you’ve got to admit, it would be a bold departure.

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