Supporters of a proposed income tax surcharge on high earners remain well ahead of opponents in the latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, but the two sides appear close enough that a massive TV ad campaign could decide the fate of this statewide ballot question in November.
The poll of 569 registered voters taken last week, shows 56 percent support the surcharge, nicknamed the “millionaires tax” or simply “Question 1,” while 36 percent are opposed and another 8 percent remain undecided. The poll has a 4 percentage point margin of error.
Other, earlier polls have generally shown more support — usually around 65 to 70 percent of respondents — for the surcharge, which proponents call the “Fair Share Amendment” and critics dub the “Tax Hike Amendment.”
The ballot question would amend the state Constitution, imposing a new surcharge of 4 percentage points onto the state’s 5 percent income tax for all individual earnings over $1 million. Thus, someone earning $1.2 million would pay the flat 5 percent rate on the first $1 million, and 9 percent on the remaining $200,000. The measure would affect an estimated 20,000-plus taxpayers in any given year, and generate roughly $1 billion annually, with a stated purpose of going toward education and transportation.
Bonnie Phair of South Yarmouth is among those who still need convincing.
“I feel like it’s a good solution in principle but I think 4 percent is a little steep,” said Phair, who participated in the poll. “[The 9 percent] is getting close to a double-digit number.”
Sixty-one percent of women said they back the surcharge, compared to half of men. Support is stronger in Boston and north of the city, and weaker in Southeastern Massachusetts, the Worcester area, and points west. Three-quarters of registered Democrats said they would support it, while only one-quarter of Republicans did (although only 63 Republicans in total responded).
Education was another factor. David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, said only 43 percent of the respondents who did not go to college supported the surcharge. He noted that previous polls did not include the actual ballot language, which includes a phrase saying the money’s use for transportation and schools would be “subject to appropriation” by the Legislature.
Both sides of this debate have steered clear of expensive TV ads so far, instead starting out with less expensive social media and other digital ads.
That’s about to change: Raise Up Massachusetts, the coalition behind the Fair Share proposal, recently purchased more than $10 million in TV ads for next month. Opponents are gearing up for their own television campaign to respond. By November, the two sides combined will, in all likelihood, have spent tens of millions of dollars. This ballot battle could end up becoming the most expensive in the state’s history, if it trumps the $52 million spent in 2020 over rights to access car telematics data.
Some survey respondents, like Kelly Merchant, are ready to say yes. Merchant, a Hopedale resident who owns a cleaning business, said she has no problem with imposing an extra tax on the wealthy, particularly for schools and transportation.
“If they make that much, why not tax them on it?” Merchant said. “I would be very grateful to be making that much [and] I would love to give back.”
Others are dubious. Brian Marrotte, a Taunton resident who participated in the poll, said he is skeptical all the money will go to its intended uses and remains opposed on principle.
“I don’t think people of different incomes should pay different tax rates,” Marrotte said. “It seems unfair. It should be the same percentage across the board.”
It’s not yet clear who has been bankrolling either side this year; the first public data on ballot question spending in 2022 won’t be released until early September. The previous campaign finance report reflected receipts at the end of 2021, when the opposition’s ballot committee was just getting started, with backing from a number of business leaders. Several union organizations and a philanthropy associated with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar had chipped in for the “yes” vote.
Expect the Raise Up ads to push the argument that the tax affects only the top 1 percent, or as Raise Up campaign manager Jeron Mariani puts it, “the super rich,” with ads that, among other things, imply this surcharge is a way to address the economic inequities that widened during the pandemic.
A debate is emerging over whether the middle class could get ensnared. Opponents say people with relatively modest incomes could get hit if they sell a house in a hot market, or if they are small-business owners who report business income on their personal tax forms.
But Mariani said he doubts many homeowners would be affected. Only a tiny percentage of all homes sold in Massachusetts result in a gain of more than $1 million for the seller, he noted.
“What we’re really talking about is the mega-multimillion-dollar homes,” Mariani said. “Who owns that? The top 1 percent.”
Dan Cence, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment, begs to differ, saying many small-business owners and homeowners will get charged at some point. Roughly half of the people who pay this surcharge would do so only once, he said, such as those selling a business or real estate.
Plus, Cence said, there’s no pressing need, with the state enjoying a multibillion-dollar surplus and the Legislature about to pass a round of tax cuts.
“It undermines economic growth,” he added. “And you can’t guarantee that there will be any increase in education or transportation [spending].”
That question — will all this new money actually go to schools and transit? — has been persistently raised by critics over the years.
Raise Up tried to get the proposed surcharge before voters in 2018. But that year, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with business groups that had sued, and blocked the question by ruling it bundled technically unrelated concepts — an income tax hike and transportation and education spending. This time around, state lawmakers initiated the measure instead of citizens, to get around the relatedness question. Critics sued again, this time to try and insert language on the ballot noting there’s no guarantee of a net increase for transportation and education, because it’s subject to the Legislature’s appropriation. That effort failed. But the business-backed legal challenge could provide fodder for the “no” campaign’s upcoming marketing push.
“It’s going to be, ‘You can’t trust the Legislature to make the decisions as to whether this money is going to education or transportation,’” said Joe Baerlein, a communications adviser who has worked on 10 ballot campaigns. “It was a smart thing they did, and also indicates one of their major themes of how they’re going to attack this.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.