It was a July night in 2013, and I was at home watching the Red Sox on TV when my phone alerted me that I had another email. Out of habit, I grabbed the phone, and I saw an urgent message from Mike Widmer, the respected leader of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF). In this MTF bulletin, Widmer warned his members that the Legislature had just passed, in his opinion, the most damaging piece of economic legislation in his 25-year tenure at MTF.
The so-called “tech tax” would have extended the state sales tax to all computer services, IT work, and any website developments and/or upgrades for which companies hired third party vendors. Compounding the problem was the fact that the tax was part of a larger transportation initiative championed by then Governor Deval Patrick.
After reading his message, I sent Mike an email asking if he had time to talk about this tech tax, as I had an idea for him to consider. Mike responded immediately, and at 9:30 pm that night, we started the conversation about how to repeal the tech tax.
My main piece of advice to Mike was a simple one but rarely utilized by the business community — turn to the ballot. Traditionally on the defensive on ballot questions, the business community had rarely used the ballot process to advance its own agenda.
Mike and I both knew that under the state constitution, citizens had the right to repeal laws passed by the Legislature. To do that, one had to draft the language of repeal, get the signatures of 10 Massachusetts citizens, have that language approved by the Attorney General, and then collect more than 60,000 signatures from Massachusetts registered voters.
I suggested to Mike that he and MTF begin the process of putting the tech tax repeal on the 2014 statewide ballot. My thought at the time was that such a maneuver by MTF would certainly get the Legislature’s attention. If the business community’s lobbying campaign gained steam, there would be an opportunity for the Legislature to repeal the tech tax in the 2013 legislative session.
If not, MTF could attempt to repeal the tech tax on the 2014 statewide ballot, a process Mike knew well from his leadership on previous ballot questions affecting the business community. Having run many ballot campaigns, I was confident the repeal of the tech tax would be a winner with the state’s voters.
The next 90 days were like a four-alarm fire in the State House. Who would have known that the plan Mike and I cooked up would be one of the most dramatic business and political stories of 2013?
Here is what happened: Another reputable statewide business organization, the Mass High Tech Council, and its President, Chris Anderson, quickly joined the effort with MTF. Mike Widmer was crisscrossing the state like a statewide candidate, talking with editorial boards and doing TV and radio interviews on the perils of the tech tax. In addition, he and Chris Anderson and the members of both organizations were meeting with the Legislature to lobby for the necessary legislative language changes in the tech tax. On a parallel timeline, MTF was beginning the process of filing a ballot question for the 2014 statewide ballot
Meanwhile, small software and new tech startups joined the fight, using digital channels such as Twitter and online forums to recruit and organize like-minded smaller companies. It was an unlikely partnership between the older established organizations like MTF and the High Tech Council with the younger, less experienced start-ups in the tech community. This combination unleashed an avalanche of criticism directed at the Legislature —as a once-in-a-generation “perfect storm” overwhelmed the State House.
The strategy of a threat of a statewide ballot question quickly focused the political conversation on the perils to the state economy of enacting the tech tax and ultimately led to its repeal. Less than 90 days after the tech tax had passed the Legislature, it was repealed by that same body, in September of 2013— an occurrence so rare that even seasoned observers could not recall it happening before. There was then no need to continue the signature gathering process for the ballot initiative, as the business community had just won an incredible political victory.
What’s more, for one of the first times ever, business, large and small, used social media and traditional media together to organize their members to achieve their goal. It was “old” meets “new” — and a taste of what was to come as technology developed into an important lobbying tool on public policy debates.