Where Is Charlie on Massachusetts Income Surtax?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/05/15/where-is-charlie-on-massachusetts-income-surtax/

By Matt Murphy


BOSTON — Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez sought Monday to ramp up political pressure on Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to take a firm position on a $2 billion proposal to further tax wealthy Bay State residents at a time when state government has been stung by slowing tax revenue growth and soaring public health care costs.

Baker, the Republican incumbent who is widely expected to seek reelection next year, has so far tried to walk a thin line between opposing new, broad-based taxes, but also leaving room for a more nuanced position on some tax issues and down the road on an issue that has polled favorably among voters.

“Once again, Governor Baker has sat on the sidelines and taken no position on this issue. The people deserve to know where he stands:  does he support asking those at the top who are doing great through this economic recovery to pay more in taxes to support improvements to our education and transportation systems that will benefit everyone, or not?” Gonzalez said in a statement.

Baker again refused Monday get drawn into a debate over the issue that will likely become a focal point of the 2018 campaign cycle. A political adviser to Baker declined comment on Gonzalez’s criticism, while the governor, when asked directly, stuck closely to the script he has been using for months.

“At this point in time it’s not before the Legislature or the administration, but as I’ve said before we shouldn’t be raising taxes on hardworking people in Massachusetts. We should be focusing on finding ways to do our jobs more effectively and efficiently,” Baker told reporters.

Baker has also said things in the past such as, “Let’s see where we are,” when asked specifically about the ballot question, referring to the still unsettled formality of the Legislature signing off on the question’s advancement to the 2018 ballot.

Gonzalez has made his support for the “Fair Share Amendment” a centerpiece of his messaging as he has traveled from town party caucuses to coffee shops around the state in the early months of his campaign. Baker, meanwhile, has yet to begin formally focusing on a re-election effort.

The amendment that would levy a 4 percent income surtax on households incomes above $1 million per year, and Gonzalez has said he would like to use some of the “desperately needed” new revenue to expand access to pre-kindergarten.

State revenue officials estimate that, if enacted, the new tax could generate $1.6 billion to $2.2 billion annually, and the proposal would set aside the funding for education and transportation investments.

Baker has mostly avoided talking about the proposal directly, issuing blanket rejections of high taxes while taking a more wait-and-see approach to the specific tax on millionaires as it winds its way through the process of reaching the ballot.

Unlike the governor, legislators have had to stake out positions on whether the question should go to the voters because the issue remains before the Great and General Court.

In a joint session of the House and Senate, the amendment received a 135-57 vote last year in favor of placing the question before voters. A second vote this session is required to ensure ballot placement.

Lawmakers passed up the chance last week to take a vote immediately on the amendment, and will have their next chance on Wednesday, June 14 when the Legislature resumes its Constitutional Convention to consider amendments to the state’s foundational document.

Rosenberg, who has made passage of the amendment one of his primary goals for the session, may have incentive to call the vote then in order to give organizers ample time to build a campaign ahead of the 2018 election.

Beacon Hill Democrats and Republicans have drawn pretty clear dividing lines over the issue with all but 19 of the 160 Democrats in the House and Senate last session expressing support for putting the question before voters. Though some faces have changed in both branches, it would take a cataclysmic collapse of support this session to keep the question from the ballot in 2018.

What role Baker will play after that remains to be seen.

Opponents of the income surtax, including Republican lawmakers, claim its passage would lead to further tax increases through the creation of additional tax brackets and the onset of a graduated income tax structure under which tax rates rise in lockstep with income levels.

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, told the News Service at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer that similar tax schemes have proven unsuccessful in other states, also warning that high-tech firms could wind up fleeing Massachusetts for other states.

“It’s a very dangerous thing and to stand quiet while it’s being debated doesn’t serve the state well,” Norquist said of Baker.

The Massachusetts Republican Party seized on the opportunity Monday to paint Gonzalez as another “tax-and-spend” Democrat, but also did not speak directly to the income surtax.

“As the state’s budget chief, Mr. Gonzalez never missed an opportunity support raising taxes on the people of Massachusetts — including regressive proposals that disproportionately hurt the poorest residents of the Commonwealth — all while failing to cut costs at agencies desperately in need of reform. He brings a lengthy tax-and-spend record to a Democrat primary that will feature arguments about who will raise taxes the most,” MassGOP spokesman Terry McCormack said.

Baker last week dismissed the notion of putting an excise tax on soda and other sugary beverages, which has been pitched by some Democrats and public health groups as a policy change that could help with the state’s revenue problem while also improving the health of residents.

“I don’t think we should be raising taxes, and I’ve said that before, especially not a tax that hits low-income people a lot harder than it hits everybody else,” Baker said.

Gonzalez was not immediately available to discuss his position on a soda tax, but while working for former governor Deval Patrick did put forward budgets that proposed a sales tax on candy and soda.