It was midday Wednesday before the outcome of the vote on Question 1 — the so-called millionaires tax — was clear. And in that close election result is a message for the Legislature from skeptical voters, few of whom will pay the tax but many of whom were unwilling to trust lawmakers to do what they promise to do.
The new surtax on those earning over $1 million a year is pledged to go to education and transportation. Or at least that’s what this amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution is, according to its backers, intended to do. That’s the way it was sold to voters.
The surtax — an extra 4 percent on income over $1 million a year over and above the state’s flat 5 percent — is expected to add between $1.2 billion and $2 billion in revenue to state coffers. The higher figure based on a static analysis of the estimated 21,000 people who could be impacted by it, the lower number assuming some slippage as those who are affected vote with their feet or put their tax accountants to work.
That the measure passed by such a narrow margin — about 52 percent to 48 percent — says more about voters’ mistrust of the Legislature to actually follow through on spending those tax dollars wisely than it does their concern for the state’s wealthier citizens.
Sure, it’s easy to explain the 68 percent of Weston voters (median income $206,250) voting no on Question 1, but how to explain that even in Leominster (median income $63,119) the no’s managed to eke out a 51.7 percent victory. In Billerica the no’s took 56 percent, in Methuen 54.7 percent, and in Dracut 59 percent.
When opponents ran ads pitching the millionaires surtax as “the politician’s tax,” they fed into a preexisting cynicism, especially in blue-collar communities, that this is a Legislature that doesn’t necessarily do what it says it’s going to do.
And every revenue dollar that comes in via the new surtax will be “subject to appropriation” — the phrase was even a part of the ballot question — by the Legislature. So while the money is supposed to be targeted to education and transportation, there is nothing to keep lawmakers from shifting funds currently devoted to education and transportation to other needs and then backfilling with the proceeds from the surtax.
Nothing, well, except the constant vigilance of voters and of those who proposed the measure in the first place.
And there will, no doubt, be a certain tugging and pulling among those varied interests for their “fair share” of the new monies. There is no set formula for how much will go to transportation vs. education, or even a precise definition of what qualifies in each bucket. Even within those two categories, will the MBTA get the lion’s share or will regional transit authorities get a piece of the pie? Will education money — and let’s not forget teachers’ unions were huge supporters of the ballot question — all go to K-12 public education, or will the state’s colleges, community colleges, and universities get a share? What about helping students directly?
The Legislature will also be charged with making sure that in the years ahead they do what they can to keep the surtax fair — tweaking it, if possible, to prevent it from falling on those “accidental millionaires” created by the sale of a home or small business. Adjusting capital gains tax deductions on the sale of a home, for example, might be necessary in the years ahead.
And that $1 million income threshold is also mandated to be adjusted annually for inflation to “ensure that this additional tax continues to apply only to the Commonwealth’s highest income taxpayers.”
That too is a promise — now etched in law.
Governor-elect Maura Healey, who supported the constitutional amendment but ended up polling well ahead of it across the state, also promised during the campaign to cut taxes, especially for the state’s neediest. That’s something the Legislature failed to do, even as it poured another $3.8 billion into programs and spending (and a host of local projects earmarked for the districts of those facing reelection).
It will fall to Healey too to make Question 1 work and to keep her fellow Democrats in the Legislature focused on doing the right thing — and keeping all of those promises.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial had the incorrect amount of revenue that the surtax would add to state coffers.
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