Behind tax numbers in Arizona and Mass.

Sunday February 3, 2013

Beyond their nearly identical population figures, Massachusetts (6.5 million) and Arizona (6.4 million) don’t have a lot in common. Arizona has warm winters, but residents pay for it by enduring broiling hot summers. Arizona has spring training baseball, which is nice, and a Grand Canyon, which is impressive. And lower taxes.

Massachusetts’ tax burden is once again an issue following Governor Deval Patrick’s January proposals to raise funds for education, transportation and other programs. This makes an article in the January 13 Arizona Republic comparing taxes in Arizona and Massachusetts, as well as the quality of life of residents of the two states, particularly timely. Authors Michael J. O’Neil, a Phoenix sociologist and Massachusetts native, and Michael Altman, a former Arizona State law professor who is now an attorney in Boston, are quite familiar with both states.

Based on 2010 U.S. Census figures, they report that Massachusetts’ tax burden was $4,933 per capita compared to Arizona’s $3,227 per capita, a difference of $1,706. Presumably, that gap would widen if the governor’s proposals make it through the Legislature, causing residents to suffer further. In comparing the states in several areas, most significantly health, crime and education, however, the authors succeed in their goal of providing "insight into the hidden costs of a single-minded obsession with lower taxes at all costs."


Thanks to its pioneering health reform law, the model for Obamacare, only 4 percent of Massachusetts residents and 3 percent of children lack health insurance. The figures in Arizona are 18 and 15 percent respectively. People without health care don’t go without health treatment, they go to emergency rooms, a costly driver of higher health care costs for all.

Massachusetts has strict gun control laws and Arizona does not, as the nation was reminded when a gunman shot up a public constituents’ meeting hosted by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who testified in Washington last week on the need for tougher measures addressing gun violence. Nearly twice as many Arizona residents died by firearms in 2011 than Massachusetts residents, and firearm robberies and firearm assaults per 100,000 in Arizona are roughly twice the number as in Massachusetts. In an evidently failed attempt to address its crime problem, Arizona has put four times as many adults in state prison than has Massachusetts, a costly way of chewing up tax revenue.

Massachusetts is rated the third-highest state in educated population, while Arizona is ranked 50th and last. This educational backbone, say the authors, is surely a factor in Massachusetts ranking sixth in median household income at $65,400 while Arizona is 22nd at $50,600. Many years of cutbacks in education spending threaten these numbers in Massachusetts, which is a key reason why the governor wants to use additional tax revenue to restore funding for schools.


Massachusetts decades ago got the nickname "Taxachusetts," and while that may have fit once it dropped by the wayside as the state gradually worked its way into the middle of the pack and behind neighboring states New York and Connecticut in overall tax burden. Knee-jerk opposition to taxes gained favor in the 2010 off-year national elections among tea partiers -- many of whom made it clear they would never part with the benefits that taxes pay for. The 2012 elections signaled a more adult response to taxes, a willingness to balance that burden with the responsibility residents have to their state and their nation and an acknowledgment of the very real benefits taxes provide.

Mr. O’Neil and Mr. Altman conclude that the extra $1,706 in taxes paid by Massachusetts residents provide tangible benefits, many outlined above, In the case of Arizona, say the authors, "Lower taxes and less government clearly come at a price," adding that Arizona lawmakers "can always take credit for all that sunshine." Massachusetts has more than its share of dark days, in particular in winter, but residents have much to be grateful for and to brag about.


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