BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)– After tax cuts faced the chopping block last summer and fall, to much public criticism, and were a cornerstone of candidate Maura Healey’s campaign promises, Beacon Hill leaders have been quiet on the topic since taking office for new terms five weeks ago.
And while Bay Staters wait for the much-discussed March 1 budget filing deadline to potentially reveal what these policies might look like, some lawmakers have hinted at a change of tune.
Two days in a row, Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville invoked a Bible story to tell advocates at the State House that cutting taxes when times are good would lead to cutting services when times are bad. “I’m going to call you back to the Bible,” Jehlen said to the audience at a MASSCAP legislative briefing on Wednesday. “I’m going to call you back to Joseph. And Joseph said, there’s going to be fat years — fat cows, and lean cows. The moral was, in a fat year, prepare for the lean years.”
“This is a hard conversation to have right now, because the consensus is, hey, we have lots of money, let’s cut taxes,” she said the day before after referencing the same Bible passage to home health care advocates. “And then times get bad, and they’re coming real fast, when times get bad we can’t raise taxes. So we cut services.”
The progressive Somerville Democrat advocated both days for an “adequate and fair tax system” that provides relief to lower- and middle-income residents through targeted tax relief while investing in services, including early childhood education and health care workers.
Lawmakers promised $500 million in permanent tax cuts in an economic development bill last summer (in addition to $500 million in one-time rebates), but ditched those plans when they realized a 1986 tax law would require the state to give roughly $3 billion back to taxpayers in light of the state’s significant revenue surplus.
The checks under the Reagan-era state law were sent to homes and bank accounts — in proportion to how much taxpayers paid in, delivering larger sums to high earners — and Beacon Hill has now gone six months, under two governors, without mounting an effort to revisit the targeted tax relief for seniors, renters and others.
Gov. Healey said on the campaign trail that she’d revisit tax cuts, and she and Senate President Karen Spilka have both said they’re interested in resurrecting parts of last year’s plan in the new session, but House Speaker Ron Mariano has migrated from a one-time supporter to non-committal on the topic. “It’s a new session. We have a higher inflation rate, the revenue numbers are down, the economy has slowed a little bit. So it’s not the same situation as it was a year ago,” he said last week.
When asked last month about permanent tax code changes, the speaker had said that he wanted to see what came of the Jan. 24 revenue outlook hearing before making decisions.
After the hearing, legislative leaders and the Healey administration concluded state tax revenues will hold at their high levels and even grow by 1.6 percent, for an estimated $40.41 billion — more than $10 billion above the estimate top officials agreed to for fiscal year 2022. Plus, the state can expect about $1 billion in extra funds from a surtax on the state’s highest earners, another major piece of tax policy favored by Beacon Hill Democrats that was approved by voters statewide in the months since last year’s tax debate.
During her inaugural address, the Senate president said she is still “committed to enacting permanent progressive tax relief,” but the speaker seemed to suggest the House would look at the issue anew.
“The Legislature already put forward several worthy tax cut proposals during the last legislative session,” Healey said at her Jan. 5 inauguration. “This will mean real relief for the people who need it most. I want to work, let’s get it done.” Also in her inaugural address, Healey mentioned her support for a proposed child tax credit “for every child, for every family.”
On Nov. 8, exactly three months ago, Healey also celebrated his tax-cutting intentions during her election night victory speech. “Our job from day one will be to make our state more affordable,” she said. “I’ll be a governor for every person struggling with higher costs. We’ll make Massachusetts more competitive and affordable so that people will come here, stay here, and grow their businesses here. We’ll cut taxes, fix road and bridges, invest in education and job training, and we’ll take on the climate crisis and create great clean energy jobs.”
Still, details have remained sparse and questions on tax relief have been answered with a promise of details-to-come in the budget.
As tax policy and competitiveness concerns slowly move into Beacon Hill’s radar, one interest group this week looked at state sales taxes. The Washington D.C.-based Tax Foundation on Tuesday released a report ranking the states based on their state-level and local sales taxes.
Massachusetts ranked 13th for its state sales tax rate, which was raised to 6.25 percent from 5 percent in 2009. In 2010, voters here rejected an initiative petition to cut the sales tax rate down to 3 percent, with 43 percent voting in favor and 57 percent against. Massachusetts does not have a local sales tax so its combined sales tax rate was also 6.25 percent, ranking the state 36th in the nation.
California has the highest state-level sales tax rate, at 7.25 percent, and a 7 percent state sales tax rate is in effect in Indiana, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. The five states with the highest average local sales tax rates are Alabama (5.25 percent), Louisiana (5.10 percent), Colorado (4.88 percent), New York (4.52 percent), and Oklahoma (4.48 percent).
Five states do not have statewide sales taxes: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Oregon, and New Hampshire, Massachusetts’ northern neighbor. “State and local governments should be cautious about raising rates too high relative to their neighbors because doing so will yield less revenue than expected or, in extreme cases, revenue losses despite the higher tax rate,” the foundation said.
As Massachusetts’ leaders contemplate tax relief, its southern neighbor’s governor is looking to deliver the largest income tax cut in the state’s history. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont proposed a $50.5 billion two-year budget last week that his administration estimates would save filers $436 million annually, with 1.1 million of Connecticut’s 1.7 million tax-filing households benefiting, The Hartford Courant reports. Lamont said many middle-income couples would save up to $600 per year, and middle-class singles close to $300, via various rate cuts to the state’s graduated income tax system.
“Connecticut is hungry for economic growth. If Massachusetts wants to compete with its border states, we need to meet their tax cut challenge head on. The first step towards that will be to institute broad tax cuts and tax eliminations to help mitigate the fallout from Question 1â€™s passage. We hope Governor Maura Healey will find time to help Massachusetts taxpayers by making good on her tax cut promise when she is back from her Washington junket,” said Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance spokesperson Paul Craney, referring to Healey’s trips to Washington, D.C. this week for the State of the Union address and National Governors Association meetings.