Barbara Anderson Leaves Lasting Legacy for Taxpayers

The longtime taxpayer advocate fought Beacon Hill on property taxes, income taxes, and excise taxes.

Barbara Anderson with Mitt Romney in 2004. (AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye)

Photo of Barbara Anderson and Mitt Romney via AP

If you’re not sure who Barbara Anderson was, you might offer up a little thanks to her while you’re filing your taxes. The longtime taxpayer advocate spent decades fighting to make life easier for the state’s overburdened taxpayers, saving them huge amounts on their tax bills over the years with a series of ballot questions that successfully challenged Beacon Hill’s taxation polices.Her longtime opponent and friend, Jim Braude, described her as a force of nature that will never be seen again in Massachusetts politics. She died on Friday at 73 of leukemia.

Since stumbling into taxpayer advocacy in 1977 as a volunteer for Citizens for Limited Taxation (she eventually became the group’s executive director), Anderson dedicated herself to holding elected officials accountable when it came to taxes. In 1980, with property taxes out of control and an anti-tax wave sweeping the country, Anderson passed her crowning achievement: Proposition 2 ½. The landmark initiative dramatically changed how Massachusetts municipalities approached property taxes by forcing elected officials to go to the voters if they sought an increase over 2.5 percent. Proposition 2 1/2 overrides are now permanent fixtures in Massachusetts policy making.

Anderson, a self-proclaimed “pragmatic libertarian,” fought back every attempt to repeal the law with the zeal of a mother protecting her children from a home invader. Ever present in the state’s media, Anderson would often make her physical presence known on Beacon Hill any time the law was threatened by camping outside the offices of elected officials and watching them like a hawk from the gallery in the legislature. If that wasn’t enough, the threat of the 13,000 dues-paying members of Citizens for Limited Taxation she could call upon certainly was influential.

If you’re a homeowner, you have her steadfast activism to thank for keeping your property taxes in check for 36 years. Are you a car owner? You owe her for that, too, because Proposition 2 ½ lowered the excise tax rate on cars from 6.6 percent to 2.5 percent.

Anderson didn’t rest on her laurels after her successes with the property and excise tax. She kept fighting, leading successful ballot initiatives to eliminate a surcharge on income taxes that forced individuals to pay an additional $7.50 on every $100 they paid in income taxes in 1986 and to gradually lower the state income tax rate to 5 percent in 2000. Anderson’s biggest loss came in 1990 when her Question 3 attempted to pass a hodgepodge of tax reductions and policy changes that would have limited the growth of government more than Proposition 2 ½. When she was proposing ballot questions and protecting her victories, she was also fighting against attempts to replace the state’s constitutionally-mandated flat income tax with a progressive income tax.

The twice-divorced mother of one was not the prototypical wealthy libertarian Wall Street type. Anderson was a Penn State dropout who lived in a simple home filled with political memorabilia and New Age knickknacks on a quiet side street in Marblehead. A chapter in WBZ political reporter Jon Keller’s book, The Bluest State, recalls an incident when angry liberal activists marched on her home and were shocked to find her living in modest abode instead of some lavish mansion.

After health setbacks in her later years, Anderson scaled back her advocacy from her Boston office to her Marblehead home. It was there that she occasionally held court with elected officials, reporters, and others in her living room, as the trip to Boston was often difficult for her. She was always at the ready to give the media a quick and witty quote on the latest Beacon Hill travesty.

Above all, Anderson loved life more than she loved her activism. During her multiple tax battles with Braude, the two ideological opponents traveled the state together in a car, often sitting together for meals post-debate. One of Anderson’s favorite stories about their time on debate circuit went like this: The two of them were sitting at a diner somewhere in central Massachusetts enjoying lunch. A woman walked over and berated Braude for his pro-tax position, but before leaving she closed with the quip, “You should listen to your wife, she’s right on taxes!”

Anderson and Braude burst out laughing because they weren’t married or even romantically involved, just cordial ideological opponents who were civil to each other. Anderson, at her core, was a happy warrior.