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By Andy Metzger


BOSTON — Less than 24 hours after volunteering that she is exploring ways to move Massachusetts from a flat to a graduated income tax structure, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley emphasized that she hopes taxes will go down in Massachusetts if she’s elected governor.

The attorney general, who is tied in polls with Republican Charlie Baker, said in a one-on-one debate at WGBH Tuesday night that, “We are exploring ways to do a more graduated income tax.”

Coakley is running on an investment agenda and has expressed hope that natural growth in tax revenues and savings within the state budget will pay for her spending proposals, with tax increases a “last resort.” She mentioned a graduated income tax during the debate when pressed by moderator Jim Braude, a former left-leaning tax activist, on which tax she would look to if she needed to generate revenues.

On a visit Wednesday morning to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, where she outlined a compassionate government that would offer help to those in need, Coakley tried to explain her intentions around the income tax, which is at a flat rate of 5.2 percent and could drop down to 5 percent over the next four years if the economy grows fast enough.

“Let me be clear because I want to make sure everybody saw and heard the same debate that I was in last night. I have said I hope taxes go down,” Coakley began, clarifying that she said if she needed to raise taxes she would aim to protect those on the lower rungs of the income bracket. She said, “I did not say we were going to do this.”

If the state needed new revenues, Coakley said during the debate, she backs tax increases on the top 2 percent income earners in Massachusetts.

There has been little support on Beacon Hill in recent years for a graduated income tax structure under which lower income workers would pay at a lower rate, with rates gradually rising and the highest income individuals paying the highest rate. The Legislature this session did not give serious consideration to a sweeping $2 billion plan by Gov. Patrick to raise new tax revenues while accomplishing some of the goals of a graduated income tax without passing a constitutional amendment.

Massachusetts voters over the years, most recently in 1994, have consistently rejected constitutional amendments calling for a graduated income tax. Democratic leaders in recent years have been reluctant to go down that path again, even though Gov. Deval Patrick and others have expressed interest, if not outright support, for the concept as a way to improve the “fairness” of the tax code, which they say regressively hits lower-income earners disproportionately compared to high wage earners.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a proponent of the graduated income tax, is poised to be elected the next Senate president in January. “I will be discussing it with my colleagues,” Rosenberg told the News Service in March after a special Tax Fairness Commission, co-chaired by Rep. Jay Kaufman and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, included the graduated income tax among its recommendations.

“I said I’m not going to raise taxes and I meant it,” Baker told reporters Wednesday afternoon after emerging from a meeting with mayors around the state on Beacon Hill. Baker described the graduated income tax as “something the voters of Massachusetts have rejected soundly at the ballot box several times over the course of the past 20 or 30 years.”

Baker was meeting with members of the Massachusetts Municipal Association to hear their concerns and talk about his ideas, according to an aide.

Pressed by Braude in an earlier primary election debate on NECN, Coakley this year said she would “potentially” be in favor of a constitutional amendment that would allow for a graduated tax structure while also suggesting “there are probably easier ways to do it.” Asked if she was unsure at the early September debate, Coakley said, “Unsure, absolutely, because I am going to think about it.”

During the debate, Baker made the case that he cares about people, not just numbers.

A former Cabinet secretary in the Weld and Cellucci administrations, Baker said “the single biggest thing that drives me up the wall” is the notion that “I care about numbers and I don’t care about people.”

Asked Wednesday whether Baker cares about numbers not people, Coakley said, “That’s what I believe.”

Independents Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively have remained in the low single digits in polls while Coakley and Baker have been steadily neck and neck, hovering around 41 points apiece.

The Coakley camp seized on Baker for leaving open the possibility of raising fees in the debate, likening him to former Gov. Mitt Romney. Coakley also raised questions about the Baker’s ability to balance the state’s books and afford tax cuts he has outlined on the campaign trail.

“The attorney general has stood idly by for the past seven years as taxes on gas, sales, cable TV and a host of other services – property taxes, fees, registry fees, local fees – have gone up across the Commonwealth,” Baker said.

Meeting with staff and people serviced by the shelter, Coakley praised the work, talked about the need for veterans to speak up when they need help and gave out “homework” for wish lists she can consider if elected.

At a debate in Springfield in September Coakley critiqued Baker, saying unlike him she wouldn’t need to meet with mayors to hear their priorities because she has already heard them.

“I’ll give you some homework,” Coakley said at multiple stops throughout the tour Wednesday.

Baker said he would put his record on helping reduce homelessness up against Coakley’s.

“It’s unfortunate that as we sit here today, there’s been so little action on this,” Baker said. “I think in many cases actions speak louder than words, and I’m proud of the work we did in the 1990s to serve homeless families, homeless individuals with mental illness, and it was recognized by the national homeless advocacy organizations as some of the best work in the country.”

The shelter Coakley visited has a separate facility with 10 beds where people can show up intoxicated, a computer classroom and a housing center where listings on a bulletin board advertised single bedrooms in Brighton, Woburn and Haverhill renting for $1,275, $995 and $1,250 per month.

“This takes care of the roof over my head and the food in my stomach so now I can worry about the other problems,” said Paul Younie, an Air Force veteran who said he will soon be moving into an apartment in Weymouth.

“We all need help in life. We all need support,” said Coakley. Bruce Brown, an Army National Guard veteran who prefers the term “displaced” to “homeless” told Coakley, “Hopefully you’re going to win.”

NECHV President Andrew McCawley, a Navy veteran, led Coakley on a tour around the center, which she said was her second in the last year.

John DeCoste told the News Service he spent three years living on the street after a lawsuit torpedoed his Malden recycling business. DeCoste, who said he served in the Army in the 1980s, had been living in North Reading and was brought to the shelter by Somerville police. Saying he had never had problems with drugs or alcohol, DeCoste told the News Service, “I didn’t know anything about shelters and I never asked my family for help.”

As Coakley passed by, DeCoste told her his nephew works for her, and Coakley appeared to recognize the name. She said, “Yep. Yep. We have a great office,” before moving on.

Michael Norton contributed reporting.