Early next month, American voters will head to the polls for midterm elections. Though the names on the ballots have changed since the last election, proponents of limited, accountable government will again be forced to choose between the same contenders: Candidate No Way and Candidate Even Worse.
In Massachusetts, both the Republican and Democrat nominees for governor offer no real promise. The only real difference between them is which interest groups will benefit from the new wings each candidate will inevitably add on to the state's ever-expanding bureaucracy. The size of the Massachusetts state government has doubled in just the last ten years.
Just a few examples:
Both Republican candidate Mitt Romney and Democrat candidate Shannon O’Brien decry the public school system, but both have sworn off any voucher or tax credit system that might introduce competition to primary and secondary education.
As state treasurer, O'Brien "oversaw" both a dire budget emergency and a crisis in the state's pension system. Now she’s asking for more responsibility. Romney -- the "Republican" and allegedly "pro-business" candidate -- has subsequently chastised O'Brien for entrusting the pension system to the "risky stock market."
You'd think that in a state reeling from a sluggish economy and mismanagement of public funds, the candidates would be stressing issues of fiscal responsibility and government accountability. Instead, the issue most prominent throughout the campaign has been the negligible and largely symbolic debate over "gay marriage" -- whether or not to bestow the state's blessing on same-sex couples.
Despite all of this, Massachusetts voters face a rare opportunity this election cycle. There is, believe it or not, an issue on the ballot that would dramatically reduce the scope and size of the Bay State's government. The Small Government Act, "Ballot Initiative 1," would end the state's income tax.
Just like that.
Overnight, government officials would have no choice but to jettison bureaucratic waste. Beacon Hill legislators would be forced to make tough decisions about what state programs are absolutely necessary and what programs are extraneous. The measure would eliminate pork spending, corporate welfare and wasteful grants to well-connected research groups, all in one fell swoop.
The Small Government Act would instantly trim the state's annual budget from $23 billion to $14 billion. On average, it would put $3,000 back into the pocket of every working resident in Massachusetts. It would create up to a half-million new jobs. Most importantly, it would take the Massachusetts state government out of the business of knowing how much its citizens earn, and return to each of them a small modicum of financial privacy.
Not surprisingly, because the measure would transfer power from the Massachusetts government to the Massachusetts people, neither candidate for governor supports it. Neither do either of the state's two major political parties. No major state officeholder supports it. And, here's a shocker: Few if any of the state's most powerful interest groups support it.
Nevertheless, the measure is polling at about 40 percent, a remarkable number given the state's leftist political proclivities. But now that the measure carries some small chance of passing, big government advocates are amassing troops and funds to ensure its defeat.
The media was first to move. The state's Libertarian Party candidate for governor, Carla Howell, a champion of the income tax initiative, was invited, and then disinvited, to the state's first gubernatorial debate, an event sponsored by a local media affiliate, televised statewide and moderated by CNN's Judy Woodruff. Howell's participation was really the only way the issue could have been raised over the course of the debate; her invitation was revoked just as the measure was polling at numbers approaching 40 percent.
A measure that would fundamentally alter the state's government is supported by four in 10 Massachusetts voters, but the issue was never mentioned at the first and most watched gubernatorial debate.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney claims to have a revolutionary plan in the works that would "streamline" Massachusetts government.
His series of largely bureaucratic changes, he says, would "shave" $1 billion from the state's annual budget. That's a pittance. He could throw his support behind the Small Government Act and lop off nine times that amount. But he won't, because that would force him to make the kinds of tough decisions that send politicians cowering.
As is the case in most state elections, the Massachusetts gubernatorial contest asks voters to cast their ballots for the lesser of two evils. But rarely are voters given the opportunity now presented to citizens of Massachusetts: A chance to shrink -- not merely slow down the rate of growth -- but actually shrink the size of government by some 35 percent.
Despite Massachusetts' modern reputation as a tax-loving, big government Mecca, the state's history is rich with tax rebellions and citizen uprisings, most notably the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and Shay's Rebellion in 1786.
This November, Massachusetts voters will get the chance to write a modern addendum to that history, and strike a powerful blow for the concept of limited government in the process.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at www.theagitator.com.