One thing I’ve been grateful for over the past few months: I didn’t have to pay attention to the Boston mayoral race with its gazillion candidates. I was able to focus on the new state tax package, the repeal of sections of that new state tax package, an ongoing national fiscal crisis, a possible war with Syria, and the train-wreck that’s Obamacare.
I’ve never lived in an American city, so have never voted for a mayor. When my little hometown in western Pennsylvania became a city in 1992 by incorporating with the surrounding township, some people wanted my popular father to run for mayor. I might have temporarily moved home to vote for him, but like me, he didn’t have a vocation for elected office so declined to run.
Boston voters who were somehow able to sort through all the candidates chose two finalists, City Councilor John Connolly and state Rep. Marty Walsh. I don’t know either one, though I fondly remember John Connolly’s father Michael, who as secretary of state oversaw petition drives, including Proposition 21/2 in 1980.
Among the opponents of Prop 21/2 were the public employee unions -- primarily the teachers unions, but including the police and firefighter unions who objected to its repeal of compulsory binding arbitration. They lost the ballot campaign and that negotiating benefit, but Rep. Marty Walsh has been filing a bill to restore it for over a decade.
Compulsory binding arbitration for police and firefighter unions was one of the reasons that Massachusetts property taxes were the highest in the world during the 1970s. If the community and the union couldn’t agree on a contract, it went to compulsory arbitration, and the decision of the arbiter was final and binding. In practice, we were told by municipal officials, it always favored the union. This drove up costs, which were covered by unlimited property taxes.
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 bills 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.
The issue has come up during the mayoral election because an arbiter just awarded a 25.4 percent pay hike, over six years, to Boston Police patrol officers. The Boston City Council is expected to balk at this. Walsh’s bill would let the raises go through without council approval. We find this threatening not only to Boston taxpayers, but to us all, because it would apply to all communities’ negotiations.
Returning to the era of final binding arbitration, with no town meeting or city council approval, would be a major violation of Proposition 21/2, and a guarantee that the next legislative assault will be on the levy limit, as municipal leaders argue that they need higher property taxes to cover the expensive contracts.
Walsh is a longtime union leader; unions have spent at least $872,000 on his race for mayor, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. He’s denied that he’d place their interests ahead of the taxpayers if he won, arguing that unions would be more inclined to be reasonable if the mayor was one of their own. The usual union dominance of the ground game in an election got him to the finals. Now there is more scrutiny, and we’ve learned about House 2467. If I could vote in Boston, it wouldn’t be for Marty Walsh.
Barbara Anderson is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a regular contributor to the opinion pages.