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House’s corporate tax change a mixed bag for businesses

Many lobbyists feared the House might adopt far more onerous changes

Well, that could have been much worse for the business community.

Business advocates knew some sort of corporate tax increase would be coming when members of the House leadership unveiled their long-awaited proposal on Wednesday to increase revenue for transportation needs.

In the end, they settled on just one notable change: raising the state’s minimum corporate tax from its barely there level of $456 a year to a tiered structure rising up to $150,000 a year, depending on a company’s size.

Lawmakers had considered far more onerous provisions, such as stripping away a special tax treatment enjoyed by mutual fund companies (aka the “single sales factor”) or significantly raising a tax on overseas profits (nicknamed “GILTI”). Business lobbyists fought these changes. Neither ended up in the House plan, though those same lobbyists worry they may still emerge in the upcoming floor debate next week.

House leaders argue that businesses should share some of the burden, alongside a 5 cent increase they proposed for the gas tax and a $1 fee increase for most Uber and Lyft rides. Representative Bill Straus, the House’s transportation chairman, said businesses rely on roads and mass transit to get employees to work and should pitch in. Commuters, he said, shouldn’t bear the brunt alone.


Progressive lawmakers, in particular, pushed for corporate taxes to be part of the formula. So did the union-backed Raise Up Massachusetts coalition. The gas tax, meanwhile, proved to be divisive yet again in the business world, with some groups wanting no increase at all, and others saying the extra nickel is not enough.

My survey of a dozen major business groups found little evidence that their members are up in arms about the change in the corporate minimum. Some are still polling on the issue, but their phones are not ringing off the hook with complaints.


That’s not to say they are happy about it. Most are not. Governor Charlie Baker agrees: He told reporters on Thursday that he opposes raising the corporate minimum. And several business advocates said they don’t see a direct connection between corporate taxes and transportation; the change in the corporate minimum, they said, would be better left for a broader debate around taxation.

The new minimum tax from House leaders would have nine tiers in all; but only the biggest companies would see a significant new charge. Businesses with more than $1 billion in sales in Massachusetts would face the highest minimum, $150,000. Those with more than $500 million worth of sales in the state, but less than $1 billion, would face a $75,000 minimum.

But those with sales within Massachusetts between $25 million and $50 million would face a minimum tax of just $5,000 a year, for example. And firms with less than $1 million in revenue here would get to keep the current $456 minimum.

House leaders say raising the minimums can bring in $100 million to $150 million a year in new tax revenue. But Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, isn’t so sure. She wants more details about those projections, including how many businesses would be affected.

But neither the House leadership nor the state Department of Revenue could provide that information to me as of Thursday evening. (A spokesman for the state’s administration and finance office said it is still working on my request.)


Even if these new taxes raise less money than House leaders anticipate, it would still make Massachusetts an outlier. The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan D.C. think tank that generally argues for lower tax rates, reported in October that only five states impose a minimum corporate tax, down from eight in 2017. Michael Lucci, a vice president at the think tank, said his group didn’t count Massachusetts among those five, because the paltry $456 figure amounts to no more than a “filing fee.” But the new system pushed by the House would definitely count as a bona fide minimum tax, he said, adding Massachusetts to that short roster of states.

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief Jim Rooney said his group is still studying the tier structure and its impact. The chamber might lobby for reducing the minimums, but has not decided.

Chris Carlozzi, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said he discussed the tax plan with members of his leadership council on Thursday morning. Their biggest beef was the gas tax increase, not the corporate minimum.

And Mark Gallagher, vice president at the Massachusetts High Technology Council, might be more miffed about the House’s failure to adopt reforms to how the state buys and builds its transportation infrastructure that Baker has proposed. Raising revenue without imposing reforms, Gallagher said, sends the wrong message.

The bill still needs the full House approval, and the Senate will inevitably have its own ideas. The biggest issue, most of the business groups said, isn’t the mandatory minimum tax. Instead, it’s yet one more mandate in a series of them from Beacon Hill, they said, one more hassle and headache. It’s a familiar refrain, and one that won’t go away anytime soon even if this particular tax change doesn’t give them much grief.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.