In a swift victory in the Supreme Court yesterday, Boston won a stay of a ruling that would let corporations but not cities or towns spend money to tell Massachusetts voters their views on a controversial property-tax referendum in the Nov. 7 election.
Boston, which has one of the nation's highest property-tax rates, favors the tax proposal; saying it would avert a shift to homeowners of $78 million of taxes now paid by the city's owners of commercial property. Total revenue from city property taxes is $400 million.
In a sworn affidavit, Mayor Kevin H. White said that "the taxes on many residential properties would double," and that large numbers of low and middle-income residents could be driven out of Boston.
Boston's plans for supporting the proposal were blocked Oct. 4, when the state's highest court enjoined the city from using funds to urge voter endorsement.
Yesterday Justice William J. Brennan Jr., saying that "the balance of equities" favors the stay of the state court order, granted it only 45 hours after the court received Boston's application for it and only 30 minutes after receiving the response.
His two-page printed opinion cited the court's April decision striking down as unconstitutional as Massachusetts ban on spending corporate funds to advocate stands on referenda.
In light of that decision commercial opponents of the property-tax referendum "are free to finance their opposition," Bmrennan wrote. "On the other hand, unless the stay is granted, the city is forever denied any opportunity to finance communications to the statewide electorate of its views in support of the referendum as required in the interests of all taxpayers . . ."
By contrast, the city's adversaries in the case, 11 Boston taxpayers, had told Brennan that a stay would leave them "without a remedy," because it would allow Boston to spend money remaining from the $1,310,550 it had appropriated in June to support the amendment.
Despite the Oct 4 injunction, the 11 taxpayers said, the city has been "extraordinary active, running a "highly effective campaign organization using public employe 'volunteers' on public time."
Boston has filed a petition for a full-scale review of the ruling. In granting the stay, Brennan said he expected the Supreme Court to grant the petition.
The case developed from an earlier ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to value all property in the state, for taxation purposes, at 100 percent of market value. The referendum seeks to undo the decision by permitting residential property to be taxed at a lower rate than commercial property.
In upholding the 11 taxpayers' suit to stop the city from campaigning for the amendment, the state high court held that a state law banning municipal advocacy was justified by the state's compelling interest in protecting taxpayers who dissent from positions taken by their officials.
At the same time, however, the court held that municipalities can lobby on any issue in the state legislature and spend and public money at will to lobby taxpayers on non-referendum issues.
In the stay application to the Supreme Court, Boston special counsel Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard constitutional law expert, said that "the question is whether a state may silence one voice in the political debate . . . while permitting every speaker except the municipality to address the people on decisions vital to their future well-being."
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Citing news reports, Tribe said that amendment opponents have spent "literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate contributions" on advertising, sometimes making "false and misleading claims."