BOSTON (SHNS) – The wait continues for Democrats to formulate a tax relief plan, and one think tank leader said Tuesday she is concerned that a focus only on the most vulnerable taxpayers could hamstring the state’s economic growth.
Pointing to the growth of remote work and shifting population trends, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Eileen McAnneny cautioned lawmakers against splicing off Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed tax breaks for renters, seniors and low-income earners from his push to overhaul the estate and capital gains taxes.
McAnneny, whose group has already endorsed Baker’s $700 million proposal that remains on ice atop Beacon Hill, said those latter two measures that have drawn more skepticism from Democrats are important to encouraging investors and entrepreneurs to plant roots in the Bay State.
“The chances of a tax package are pretty good,” McAnneny said during an event hosted by the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans. “What I worry about is this: that there will be a tendency on part of the Legislature to hand-pick parts of the governor’s tax proposal that help the most vulnerable, and not that that’s a bad thing, but that they won’t do any of the other things that better position Massachusetts for growth.”
Massachusetts relies “disproportionately” on income tax, turning to it for about 57 percent of all tax revenue that funds state government, McAnneny said.
More than two years after COVID-19 first upended public life, some office workers with the flexibility to do so continue to perform their jobs from home, a trend that McAnneny told the News Service makes people “much more sensitive to relative cost differences among the states.”
Baker in January filed a $700 million tax relief package (H 4361) that would increase tax credits available for parents accessing child care and for senior citizens, boost the tax deduction renters can claim, and increase the minimum income level above which Massachusetts residents must file taxes.
His legislation also seeks to reduce the short-term capital gains tax rate from 12 percent to 5 percent, a step Baker said in his filing letter would “align the Commonwealth with most other states and make Massachusetts a more attractive place to live,” as well as double the threshold at which the estate tax kicks in to $2 million and apply it only to value that exceeds that level.
In an interview with the News Service after the MAHP event, McAnneny said Massachusetts is an “outlier” on the estate tax.
“Massachusetts is an aging state, and a lot of people are thinking about those things. As they plan where to live in retirement, I think that weighs heavily,” she said. “There’s a tax burden for Massachusetts folks that doesn’t exist in a majority of states, and in those states with an estate tax, it’s far less burdensome.”
Legislative leaders have neither advanced Baker’s tax relief package nor rolled out their own counterproposal, but they continue to say some kind of relief — excluding suspension of the state’s gas tax — remains on the to-do list in the next two months.
Some top Democrats have indicated they want reforms to focus on helping residents who face the greatest needs.
“We’re looking at relief for low-income, the most vulnerable populations and working families that we have. We’re looking at relief for seniors. We’re looking at relief in various forms,” Senate President Karen Spilka said Monday.
The Tufts Center for State Policy Analysis floated some other ideas in a new report published Tuesday. The “simplest approach,” cSPA Executive Director Evan Horowitz wrote, would be to give all taxpayers a one-time rebate, an option under consideration in 10 other states across the political spectrum.
Other options that the non-partisan center mentioned include consolidating two separate tax breaks for young children, adjusting the rate table while increasing the estate tax threshold, boosting the earned income tax credit, and exempting some unemployment benefits from taxes.
Lawmakers should consider keeping some tax cut options temporary, Horowitz wrote, warning that “when today’s good fortune dissolves, we may miss those lost tax dollars.”
Pressure has been growing on lawmakers to enact some form of tax relief, particularly amid what MTF Executive Vice President Doug Howgate called an “absolutely unprecedented” rate of revenue growth in the past two years.
The Bay State is on pace to haul in about $6.5 billion more in taxes through fiscal year 2022, which ends June 30, than it did a year earlier when taxpayers produced a surplus of roughly $5 billion, McAnneny and Howgate told attendees at Tuesday’s event.
Some of that money will automatically go into the state’s rainy day savings account, which is set to swell above $6 billion by the end of this year — roughly 12 percent as much as the House and Senate proposed spending in their FY23 annual budgets — and could surpass $7 billion by the end of next fiscal year.
Howgate said state law currently imposes a ceiling on that savings account. Once the rainy day balance hits 15 percent of the state’s “operating revenues,” a term he said has not been clearly defined in some time, additional dollars that would be transferred to savings instead must go into a tax reduction fund that would offer rebates to taxpayers.
“Territories that I think were kind of theoretical a few years ago are getting to be not theoretical now,” Howgate said.
Even after accounting for transfers and other needs, lawmakers are still in line to be gifted a multibillion-dollar budget surplus for the second straight year, this time just a few months before all 200 seats in the Legislature are up for election.
“The fiscal overview, in a word, is rosy,” McAnneny said. “I can’t recall a time when the state had so many resources at its disposal.”