Ironic, incongruous, inconceivable, or all of the above? The Massachusetts Department of Revenue recently announced that April collections were $385 million ahead of estimates. That should come as no surprise because collections outpaced projections by hundreds of millions of dollars each month this year.
In a great irony, on the same day that the DOR announced that April revenues put Massachusetts $3.4 billion ahead of this time last year, a union-backed lobbying group, Raise Up Massachusetts, kicked off a campaign to raise taxes by $2 billion annually.
Proponents of the self-styled Fair Share Amendment — commonly called the millionaires tax, which was originally proposed seven years ago — assert that more tax dollars are needed to cover additional state spending. But state budgets have long been rising at twice the rate of inflation, and in addition to spending increases, excess revenues have also swelled the critical rainy day fund to record levels.
It’s fair to call the claim that we need to raise more, even when we haven’t come close to spending what we have, incongruous.
What makes the play by the insatiable tax-and-spenders more inconceivable is that the state’s already overflowing coffers will soon receive billions from the federal government to make up for coronavirus pandemic-related budget gaps that never materialized, even in the face of statewide business shutdowns. The Commonwealth has already received billions of dollars from the federal government to “weather the storm,” a storm that has actually resulted in deposits into the rainy day fund.
State policy makers, anticipating the arrival of $4.5 billion in federal stimulus, are correctly asking what should be done next. Even in the face of a state budget that is overflowing with cash and will probably benefit from an economy that appears ready to bust out and generate surpluses as it did pre-pandemic, taxation proponents reply, “Let’s raise taxes!”
Make no mistake, Massachusetts residents still face challenges. Restoring the more than 300,000 jobs lost in the last year must be the top priority for policy makers and the business community. Jobs are a source of dignity and the only conceivable way to create opportunities for all residents. In the Massachusetts full-employment pre-pandemic economy, workers at the lower end of the pay scale were the biggest beneficiaries of rising wages. New taxes on businesses will not make hiring any easier, especially for those who spent much of the last year closed and now face a more than $4 billion bill for the unemployment trust fund.
Already one of the most expensive states per household for state and local taxes, Massachusetts must consider the allure of low- and no-tax states. Making it an even more expensive state for businesses further increases the risk of business and employee relocations. Examples of this happening in other high-tax states abound — just ask California or Connecticut.
The Legislature would do well to focus on the most vital policy goal coming out of the pandemic — getting Massachusetts residents back to work. Massachusetts doesn’t need a job-killing tax scheme that was first hatched seven years ago; it needs policies that are responsive to today’s conditions and challenges, in which post-pandemic businesses and jobs compete with online shopping and opportunities to work remotely.
Getting the hundreds of thousands of unemployed Massachusetts residents back to work is also smart policy for the state’s budget writers. It’s robust growth that brings multibillion-dollar surpluses that can fund tax advocates’ priorities.
Bill Weld is a former governor of Massachusetts. Karen Andreas is CEO of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce. Peter Forman is CEO of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce. Rick Sullivan is president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council.