, Newburyport, MA


October 12, 2013

Another threat to Prop. 21/2


Another oddity in Massachusetts law was school board fiscal autonomy. This is hard to believe today: Before Prop 21/2, city and town governments — mayors, selectmen, city councils and town meetings — had to give the school committee any amount it demanded. If they refused, it went to court; we were told by municipal officials that the education establishment always won and the community had to pay court costs, too. So, communities just gave in and raised property taxes as much as they deemed necessary.

During the early debate on property tax limitation, the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) argued that its members couldn’t live with tax limitation unless these two state mandates were repealed. So, when we drafted the ballot question, we repealed them both. We also put in a provision forbidding new unfunded state mandates on the cities and towns.

While MMA still opposed Prop 21/2, it was grateful for these provisions, and during the ballot campaign, two mayors and two boards of selectmen actually endorsed it. Editorial boards liked the attempt at fairness and supported, if not the entire proposed limit, these mandate provisions that would give municipalities more control over their budgets.

Voters passed Prop 21/2, 59-41; it’s been in effect since 1981. There were a few reasonable changes over the years, including the return of a modified version of arbitration for police and firefighters that required approval of city councils and town meetings of the negotiated contracts. This seemed fair enough; if they didn’t approve the contract, it went back to the negotiating table until everyone agreed.

But the unions weren’t satisfied with this compromise and have been filing a bill to restore the compulsory, binding, property tax-raising version. Rep. Walsh is the sponsor of this legislation, House Bill 2467. Suddenly, the Boston mayoral race is important to me. Walsh’s bill hasn’t gone anywhere, in a Legislature that has been supportive of Prop 21/2, but give him the bully pulpit of a Boston mayor, and we could have a problem.

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