After lobbying Beacon Hill hard for tax relief for two years, Massachusetts business groups are declaring victory now that Governor Maura Healey has signed a $1 billion tax package on Wednesday.
There’s something for just about everyone: credits and deductions for seniors, renters, and parents; a capital gains tax cut; a doubling of the threshold where the estate tax kicks in.
But will this cornucopia significantly improve the state’s economic competitiveness? Maybe not.
Some tax experts say the reforms will do little to spur companies to invest or expand here, or to stem the exodus of residents seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Massachusetts will remain an outlier with its estate tax and short-term capital gains tax. Just not as big of an outlier as before.
When the pro-business Tax Foundation releases its annual state-by-state ranking in the coming weeks, Massachusetts is expected to fall to 46th place from 34th. That’s because of the so-called millionaires tax that voters approved last November, increasing the income tax rate on earnings above $1 million by four percentage points, to 9 percent from 5 percent. The Legislature passed the new tax bill last week, not in time for this fall’s Tax Foundation ranking.
But lead researcher Jared Walczak said it probably won’t matter much anyway. None of the changes will have a significant impact on Massachusetts’ ranking, he said, once they get factored in a year from now.
“It does put more in residents’ pockets, though the targeting is not designed around economic competitiveness,” Walczak said of the measure Healey signed amid much hoopla. “To the extent that it’s sold as a package that enhances the state’s overall competitiveness, it’s not so well calibrated toward that objective.”
Consider some of the components (with costs provided by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation):
Of 12 states with estate taxes, Massachusetts ties with Oregon for the lowest threshold before the tax kicks in, at $1 million. And if it does kick in, Massachusetts currently taxes the full estate, including the first $1 million. The Legislature addressed this by raising the threshold to $2 million, and eliminating that “cliff effect,” as it’s known. (These two changes could cost the state $213 million in the second year they take effect.) “I do view it as a concession for the millionaires tax to stop the bleeding a little bit, for people leaving,” said Justin Hannan, a tax expert at the Day Pitney law firm.
Notice that phrase: “A little bit.” Massachusetts is now ahead of only two states: Oregon and Rhode Island.
While Zachary Donah of the Massachusetts Society of CPAs would have preferred a higher threshold, he still argues this will make a meaningful difference. Eliminating the cliff effect, he said, is significant and will particularly help one-time millionaires and others who own valuable assets such as their homes but are otherwise middle class.
The House of Representatives approved a cut in the state’s short-term capital gains rate to 5 percent from 12 percent, while the Senate preferred no change at all. In the end, they sent Healey a compromise: 8.5 percent, at a cost of $65 million a year. As Elizabeth Mahoney, a lobbyist with the Massachusetts High Technology Council, points out, this change doesn’t move the needle much compared with other states. Even at 8.5 percent, Mahoney notes that Massachusetts still has the eighth-highest short-term tax rate in the country — and the second highest, after California, for those who earn enough to pay the millionaires tax surcharge on their gains.
Single sales factor
Massachusetts joins more than 35 other states, by switching how it calculates taxes for multistate companies. Until now, Massachusetts tax collectors use three factors when establishing most multistate companies’ corporate income tax: payroll, property, and in-state sales. Switching to only taxing sales will cost the state $79 million a year but could encourage big corporations headquartered here to add jobs locally, without worrying about a tax penalty. But Walczak said he doesn’t consider this a major improvement in economic competitiveness; a number of big out-of-state companies that do business here could end up paying more in taxes as a result.
The tax legislation bars married couples who file federal taxes jointly from filing their state taxes separately as a way to remain below the $1 million threshold for the new millionaires tax. Now, with this bill, couples have to be consistent with their approaches for state and federal taxes. However, the state Department of Revenue recently noted it’s already advantageous for many married couples who are high earners to file their federal taxes separately anyway. This gives them one more reason to do so.
Credits and deductions
The tax package creates a new child and dependent tax credit, capped at $440 and phased in over two years, at a projected cost of $300 million a year. Renters get an increase in their maximum state deduction, to $4,000 from $3,000, costing $40 million a year. And senior citizens see the maximum tax credit for local property tax payments doubled, to a cap of $2,400, worth $60 million.
Phineas Baxandall, interim president at the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center think tank, says these changes can help with business competitiveness by making this high-cost state somewhat more affordable for workers. But Baxandall argues the money given out for the estate tax and capital gains cuts would be better spent on other competitiveness-enhancing investments such as child care, affordable housing, or improved transit — instead of going back into high earners’ pockets.
Yvonne Hao, Healey’s economic development secretary, doesn’t seem to mind being 34th in the rankings, considering all of the state’s other strengths. But she worries about falling to the bottom. That said, even if it doesn’t help the ranking all that much, Hao said the $1 billion package sends an important message: “We are here to compete [and] help every person, every business stay and grow here.”
Still, while the state’s leading business groups are heaping praise on the governor and the Legislature, they’re quick to note this package is a great “first step” in changing the state’s tax structure. Translation: They’ll be back on Beacon Hill, asking for more, next year.