Imagine how many Massachusetts teenagers came down the stairs on Christmas morning in 1965 to find the Beatles’ "Rubber Soul" under the tree. The band was at the height of its popularity, and its newest record had dropped smack in the middle of the holiday shopping season.

By the following summer, when Bay State Beatlemaniacs rushed to their local record store for their copy of the fab’s next masterpiece, "Revolver," it cost them a little more. Three percent more to be specific. Not because LP prices went up, but because Massachusetts had instituted its first statewide sales tax.

The Beatles were renowned for their prescience, but surely it was just coincidence when fans dropped the record needle on side one, track one, and heard the song "Taxman."

With a potential 2018 Massachusetts ballot question gaining steam that would give voters a chance to lower the current Massachusetts sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5 percent, listener Rich Minton from Belmont got to wondering about the origins of the state sales tax, and reached out to the Curiosity Desk.

I’m curious about Massachusetts’ sales tax. I was a kid when it was instituted, and I think it was a temporary measure? I remember a lot of back and forth and promises. What is the history on that?

In the mid-1960s, local property taxes throughout the state were spiraling out of control.

"Really, it was bad," said former Democratic Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who was a state rep in the mid-1960s. "Property taxes were really becoming a big burden especially to the elderly, people on fixed incomes and so on."

Then-Republican Gov. John Volpe had a plan to raise money statewide that could help cities and towns to help keep property taxes under control. 

"Volpe wanted to pass a sales tax, at that time 3 percent," said Dukakis, "to provide substantial state aid to cities and towns which we did not provide in those days."

“Those days” were the prelude to the infamous "Taxachusetts" years. Forty U.S. states had adopted a sales tax by 1965 but not the Bay State. And Dukakis says he and many of his fellow Democrats were opposed to the idea of one here.

"The feeling [was] that a sales tax is a regressive tax," he said. "That it hits low and moderate income people much harder than it does the wealthy."

Dukakis and other Democrats agreed more state revenue was needed to help cities and towns, but they favored changes to the state income tax. Still, Gov. Volpe would not be dissuaded.

"He filed seven messages for the sales tax," said Dukakis. "We killed ‘em all except the last one. He kept pounding away and pounding away, and we finally passed the thing."

The sales tax went into effect on — no joke — April 1, 1966, initially as a temporary measure set to expire at the end of 1968. But opponents were not done, and gave the voters a chance to repeal the new sales tax later that year via ballot question. It backfired.

"Volpe, to his credit, made that argument that there would be significant reductions in property taxes and people bought it," said Dukakis.

Voters approved the new sales tax by an overwhelming 3 to 1 margin. Emboldened by the clear support, the legislature made the sales tax permanent the next year. It stayed at 3 percent until the mid-1970s when, in the midst of a national recession, Michael Dukakis was elected governor. 

"When I walked into the governor’s office in ’75, I inherited a fiscal mess that was far worse than we were told," he said. "Like five times [worse]."

The new governor was staring at a gaping, half-a-billion-dollar budget deficit.

"Biggest state deficit, proportionally, in the country," he said. "And the deficit was growing by the day."

And then there was the unemployment issue.

"We had the second highest unemployment rate in the country," said Dukakis. "It was around 12 percent, and that obviously kills your revenue. In the older cities we had unemployment rates in the 20s. I mean, this was [Great Depression] stuff."

Despite the fact that he had campaigned on the promise that he could fix the fiscal mess without raising taxes, Dukakis says the situation was untenable.

"Obviously, under those circumstances, we had to raise taxes," he explained. "Not fun. And it’s probably one of the principal reasons that I was defeated for reelection the first time out."

Dukakis raised the sales tax rate form 3 to 5 percent, where it stayed until 2009. As the Great Recession took hold, Massachusetts bumped up to its current rate of 6.25 percent. A 2010 ballot measure to drop it back down to 3 percent failed. As for dropping it down to 5 percent now? Dukakis is not a fan of the idea should the question make the ballot.

"These days I think it’s fair to say the sales tax is part of the state’s tax structure and among other things, it’s paying a large part of the cost of the T," he said. "So, if you’re going to mess around with it, change it, reduce it, you’re going to have to have some answer on how to deal with that."

Of course, there are plenty of other ideas for how to fund the T. One potential answerwill also be on the 2018 ballot — a proposed 4 percent tax on all personal income over a million dollars to raise money for transportation. So, before you cast your ballot this November, study up. And as always, when it comes to taxes, make sure you read the fine print.   

Our thanks to Belmont’s Rich Minton for his question that led to today’s story. What’s yours? Email the Curiosity Desk at We might just look into it for you.