BOSTON (SHNS) – The group that officially kicked off the ballot campaign Wednesday for the proposed surtax on household income over $1 million included a personal care attendant from Brockton, an education support staffer from Worcester, a public transit advocate from Fall River, an ice cream shop owner from Everett, a student counselor from UMass Dartmouth and a human services worker from Lynn.
This is the face of this campaign, right? It is led, driven and powered by working people. That’s what this campaign is all about. It’s about delivering justice, fairness and equity for the working people, middle class of Massachusetts,” Jeron Mariani, campaign manager for Fair Share for Massachusetts, said during the campaign kick-off press conference.
Saúl Ramos, who works as a one-on-one paraeducator with visually impaired students in Worcester Public Schools, explained what passage of the question that voters will be faced with on the November ballot — whether to amend the Massachusetts Constitution to impose a new 4 percent surtax on annual household income in excess of $1 million to raise money for education and transportation — would mean for him and his students.
“It means more social and emotional support for our students and more educators to meet the needs of all the students. It can mean a living wage for education support professionals, our ESP members who work so hard every single day yet the majority still qualify for government assistance. It will also mean more healthy buildings where our educators and students don’t have to worry about mold, leaking roofs, broken furniture, windows and bathrooms, and also not have to worry about wearing their winter coats in the classroom because the heat is not working,” Ramos said. “All these are issues currently happening in our schools. And while millionaires are taking joyrides into outer space, our educators are digging into their pockets to buy school supplies and other resources for their students. This is a problem and we have the chance to change it.”
The campaign launched a new website, www.FairShareMA.com, and has organized canvasses in seven cities around Massachusetts this coming weekend, Mariani said. The group’s ballot question campaign committee reported having $68,637.89 on hand as this year started. Meanwhile, the ballot question committee organized to oppose the effort, the Coalition for A Strong Massachusetts Economy, reported $286,900.59 on hand at the end of 2021.
Democrats on Beacon Hill have been pursuing the tax policy change for years, despite largely steering clear of changes to the state’s two big taxes — sales and income — since 2009, when the Legislature raised the sales tax rate from 5 percent to 6.25 percent. Estimates put the annual revenue that could be generated by the surtax at about $1.3 billion and supporters pitch the idea as a way to provide a sustainable revenue source for education and transportation without dipping further into the pockets of most residents.
The state income tax rate is currently 5 percent. If the surtax is approved by voters, the first $1 million of household income would still be taxed at the 5 percent rate and all household income above and beyond that first $1 million would be taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent. The change is proposed as a Constitutional amendment because the Constitution currently requires that a tax on income be applied evenly to all residents.
Meeting jointly in a Constitutional Convention last summer, the House and Senate voted 159-41 to let voters decide on the 2022 statewide ballot whether to impose the new surtax. Rep. Jim O’Day of West Boylston and Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester were the chief legislative sponsors with support from most of their Democratic colleagues, Raise Up Massachusetts, labor unions and progressive-minded organizations.
Within the Legislature, Republican leaders like Rep. Brad Jones and Sen. Bruce Tarr have cautioned that the surtax will likely affect more than just the taxpayers who already report household income over $1 million and warned that it could lead to an exodus of wealthy Bay Staters. Only one Republican, Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth, voted to advance the idea to the November ballot.
“We know that this will not only affect folks that have incomes, year after year, of a million dollars, it will affect the incomes of folks that may be proprietors of small businesses and those who would sell a home. And we know … that even if that were not true, the effect of the question would be to place the burden of the promise that would be made by this amendment on 20,000 taxpayers — roughly, that number changes — who’ve already exhibited highly-mobile behavior,” Tarr said last summer when the Legislature voted to put the question on the ballot. He added, “In good conscience, I have to sound the warning of all of the things that could happen here that I don’t believe anyone in the commonwealth of Massachusetts would want to see.”
During Wednesday’s campaign kick-off, Worcester City Councilor At-Large Khrystian King rejected the idea that passage of the surtax amendment is going to spark a mass exodus of wealthy Bay Staters.
“New Hampshire hasn’t had taxes, they haven’t had taxes. If they’re gonna move, they would have moved a long time ago,” King said.
King also addressed the line of criticism from opponents who say that the money raised by the surtax would not necessarily lead to actual increases in spending on transportation and education. While the amendment itself would require the surtax revenue to be spent in those areas, future Legislatures could decide to stop appropriating money from other revenue sources to transportation and education.
“We know that the devil’s in the details in how the money will be used, we acknowledge that,” he said.
Andrew Farnitano, a spokesperson for the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, said the language of the amendment is “an ironclad dedication that the funds raised by this amendment must be spent on those two areas.” Pressed on the question of future lawmakers merely replacing current education and transportation revenues with money raised by the surtax, Farnitano said the campaign is not worried about that possibility.
“I think when you look at the words that they have said and the commitments that they have laid out, it’s clear that their intention is to spend more on education and transportation and we will hold them to that,” he said.
Outside the State House, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance has been the primary organizer of public opposition to the surtax amendment. The group has hosted events with a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, small business owners, farmers and others to highlight the negative consequences they see coming if Massachusetts voters pass the question on the ballot.
The Massachusetts High Technology Council, which was successful in getting the 2018 version of the surtax amendment tossed off the ballot, is leading the legal effort to influence how the question could be described to voters when they get their ballot.
The Supreme Judicial Court last week heard arguments related to the complaint that the surtax summary that Attorney General Maura Healey has prepared for voters will mislead them.
The suit seeks to have the SJC order that ballot materials tell voters that “the Legislature could choose to reduce funding on education and transportation from other sources and replace it with the new surtax revenue because the proposed amendment does not require otherwise.”
Farnitano said Wednesday that the challenge “doesn’t have any merit.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been critical of the income surtax and whose budget chief called it “dangerous policy,” nominated all seven of the high court’s seven justices. Healey supports the surtax and is running for governor this year, leading that race in public opinion polls.