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Massachusetts Sales Tax: Do the Candidates' Views Matter?

Every candidate for governor in Massachusetts opposes a ballot measure that would cut the sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3 percent. But, voters might approve it anyway.

Four people will appear on Massachusetts' ballot for governor. All four of them oppose a ballot measure that would cut the sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3 percent. Under normal circumstances, that would doom the measure to defeat. But, in the present political climate, I'm wondering whether the normal rules apply.

Voters -- loathe as they are to admit it -- tend to take their cues on issues from politicians they trust. They also tend to decide how they stand on issues by taking the opposite stand from politicians they mistrust.

Education policy is good example of this phenomenon. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are very different when it comes to the particulars, but philosophically they're quite similar. Both combine more federally imposed accountability with more federal funding. The key difference is who proposed the policy: Bush v. Obama. Democrats generally hated No Child Left Behind, but they're mostly fine with Race to the Top.

Along the same lines, a President Romney (despite his protestations to the contrary) easily could have proposed Obamacare. Democrats were right when they said the bill borrowed heavily from Republican ideas. But, Republican voters hated those Republican ideas when a Democratic president proposed them and when Republican elected officials opposed them.

These dynamics have important implications for ballot measure politics. Other than money, the most important factor is determining whether measures pass or fail is who is for them and who is against them. That's especially true on fiscal issues, as opposed to social issues (gay marriage, abortion, marijuana) where voters are more likely to have hard-and-fast views.

In Massachusetts, it's striking that every candidate for governor opposes the sales tax measure. Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat-turned-independent Tim Cahill both have been courting the same fiscally conservative voters. Yet both say they don't want a sales tax cut this large. Their view is that the proposed cut simply is too large for state government to handle.

But, will voters care what the people running for governor want? While the issue is different, in some ways this vote will be a similar test to Florida's measure on development. As I said, voters tend to instinctively oppose the policies proposals of the politicians they mistrust. In 2010, voters may mistrust everyone.

Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..
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