Watch local TV these days, and you can’t help but get whiplash from competing ads over the ballot question to raise taxes on the wealthy in Massachusetts.
Each side has released at least eight ads on TV and social media. Proponents proclaim passing Question 1 will raise $2 billion for education and transportation, and that only the richest will pay the extra tax.
Opponents, however, warn that the measure would nearly double the income tax rate for “tens of thousands” of homeowners and small business owners, and the Legislature can’t be trusted with spending the new revenue.
So who should voters believe? If you’re left scratching your head, you’re not alone.
Both sides, says Anne Danehy, associate dean of the Boston University’s College of Communication, are playing to their strengths, with carefully honed messages.
“They are both pretty good, and that’s why they are confusing,” said Danehy, who teaches about politics and previously ran a polling company that worked on ballot campaigns.
It’s no accident that ads for the “yes” side feature teachers and construction workers to highlight the importance of adequately funding schools, and roads and bridges, observed Danehy. The measure would levy a 4 percent tax on the portion of annual incomes over $1 million, and designates the proceeds for education and transportation.
“They know people love teachers,” she said.
Part of the confusion is that both sides are often talking past each other. The “no” campaign focused its first round of ads on who might pay the extra tax – such as small business owners who sell and earn a one-time windfall. Their most recent batch argues that voters can’t trust politicians with their money and warns against giving them a “blank check.”
“That is what gets voters really angry, and that’s where the anti-tax sentiment comes from,” added Danehy. “It’s not that they don’t favor spending money on government services. It’s that they feel like their money is wasted.”
We watched 16 ads about Question 1 — so you don’t have to — and scored just how true both sides’ competing claims really are. Here’s what you need to know:
Claim: “Question 1 raises $2 billion a year that the Constitution dedicates to public schools, colleges, and roads and bridges.”
Score: Half true
Only proponents seem to be using the $2 billion figure. It’s based on a Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center examination of three sources. One of those sources, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, pegs the additional revenue at $2.7 billion, but the other two — the state and a January report from Tufts University’s Center for State Policy Analysis – project revenue to be about half of that.
In a note to voters, the state budget office indicates the measure “may increase annual state revenues by $1.2 billion in the near term. … However, annual revenue generated by the surtax will vary significantly and unpredictably from year to year.”
The Tufts report estimates the ballot question could generate $2.1 billion a year, but also indicates the figure is likely closer to $1.3 billion after factoring in potential relocations by wealthy residents and other tax avoidance strategies.
Claim: “After years of the very rich paying less in taxes than everyone else, they’ll finally pay their fair share.”
Score: Mostly true
Massachusetts has a flat 5 percent tax on income, so how can the wealthy pay less? Income tax isn’t the issue. Factor in other state and local taxes — on sales, property, and gas — the burden is heavier on poor and middle-class taxpayers because a larger share of their income goes towards taxes. The Mass. Budget & Policy Center, which supports Question 1, found that the lowest-earning fifth of taxpayers pay 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the highest-earning 1 percent pay just 6.8 percent.
“It’s probably a better way to think about it. It’s the more comprehensive view,” said Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts.
Claim: “Even when we sell our house, we won’t have to pay more.”
Score: Half true
It’s true that when most people sell their home, they won’t have to pay more under Question 1 — but it’s not true for everyone.
When you sell your primary residence, you’re taxed on what’s called the capital gain: the sale price minus what you originally paid for the home, any capital improvements you made that increased its value, and certain fees associated with selling the home. Married couples also get a $500,000 exemption to further chisel down what’s taxable. Single people get to deduct $250,000.
And while $1 million-plus sales are fairly common in Massachusetts’s pricey housing market, only 2 percent of home sales in the state last year actually generated a capital gain of more than $1 million, according to Mass Budget. This means that most residents won’t fall into Question 1 territory through a home sale alone.
But where home-sellers might trigger the surtax is when they include any additional income from that year. Let’s say you profit $800,000 from the sale of a home after all the deductions, and you and your spouse bring home $300,000 in salaries. You’d be taxed on the total $1.1 million. That means you’d pay an extra $4,000 in taxes under Question 1.
Claim: “It won’t impact our retirement savings.”
Score: Mostly true
This statement, at its core, is true: The state taxes people only on the funds they take out from retirement accounts, not the savings in the account itself. But whether or not retirees will see their 401(k) withdrawals take a hit is a different story.
Less than 1 percent of older Massachusetts taxpayers have enough income each year to cross the Question 1 threshold, according to a report by Mass Budget. Even if retirees have a large nest egg, few will “take a distribution that large from a retirement income” in any given year, said Meg Wiehe, the former deputy executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, who has been working with the Mass Budget.
But, like the sale of houses, where retirees may see a tax increase is if they have other income that supplements their retirement withdrawals — like the sale of a property or business. It then becomes more likely that they will surpass the $1 million threshold and pay more in taxes.
Claim: “It gives politicians a blank check on spending, with no accountability.”
Score: Half true
The “loophole” is wording on how the surtax revenue would be “subject to appropriation” by the Legislature. While the money would be designated for education and transportation, it’s true that lawmakers have the ultimate say on how to spend the money.
Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chairman, has told the Globe: “We’ll certainly try to uphold this end of the bargain. But you can never guarantee anything.”
Still, it was lawmakers who voted to put Question 1 on the ballot. If the measure passes, they will face public scrutiny for not adhering to the will of the voters, with their jobs on the line on Election Day.
“Every other year you could fire me for not spending your money appropriately,” said state Senator Lydia Edwards, who supports Question 1. “There’s a certain level of accountability built into it.”
Claim: “Question 1 doesn’t guarantee a nickel of increased funding for transportation and education.”
The language of the proposed measure only indicates that the new revenue would go to “quality public education and affordable public colleges and universities, and for the repair and maintenance of roads, bridges, and public transportation.” It does not require the state to increase overall funding for those sectors.
Claim: “Tens of thousands of us would pay nearly double in higher taxes.”
Score: Mostly false
It’s true that the tax rate would nearly double on incomes over $1 million if it were to jump from the current 5 percent rate to 9 percent. That represents an 80 percent increase, but very few would see what they actually owe increase by that much.
Let’s say you earn $2.5 million one year. Before Question 1, you would owe a flat 5 percent of that in taxes, or $125,000. After Question 1, you would owe 5 percent on the first $1 million ($50,000), plus 9 percent on the remaining $1.5 million ($135,000) for a total of $185,000. This is a 48 percent increase — not double, or even “nearly.”
The Tufts report estimated that about 2,000 Massachusetts households earned incomes above $5 million in 2019, so exceedingly few residents would see their income taxes “nearly double.”
Claim: “Beacon Hill already has a massive budget surplus. We don’t even need it right now.”
Score: Mostly true
The state is experiencing a record budget surplus, so much so that it has triggered an obscure tax-cap law that requires the Commonwealth to return nearly $3 billion in refunds to taxpayers. Some 3.6 million taxpayers are due to receive a payment starting this week, state officials have said.
But with the economy expected to slow down, nobody expects the state to keep generating such outsized surpluses.
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6. Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.