Rejoice, Massachusetts taxpayers. You’ll have a bit more money in your paychecks come January, and, if state assumptions are correct, another long-awaited reprieve — with potentially bigger budget ramifications — could follow.
The state income tax rate will drop from 5.1 percent to 5.05 percent at the start of the new year, the latest step in a yearslong, legislatively created process that will march the tax rate toward 5 percent and eventually fulfill the will of the voters from two decades ago.
The impact next year is likely small for the average taxpayer. For example, someone who is single, has no children, makes $50,000 a year, and rents his or her home stands to save $20, according to the Department of Revenue.
Meanwhile, a married, home-owning couple with a $100,000 income and two children under 12 will keep $39 more, state officials estimate.
The state, meanwhile, is projecting to lose $84 million in revenue for the second half of the fiscal year because of the dip, and another $175 million in the full fiscal year in 2020.
By then, however, more changes could be afoot. In providing preliminary budget estimates this month, the Department of Revenue said it’s also assuming the income tax rate will drop in January 2020 to 5 percent, assuming that state revenue again hits a complicated set of economic triggers.
That would dock the state another estimated $88 million next fiscal year. But it also would finally accomplish what voters asked for in 2000 when they approved a ballot initiative to gradually knock the rate down from 5.85 percent to 5 percent.
“It’s laughable. Twenty years. I can’t remember another ballot question that meandered along for two decades and finally became law,” said Chip Faulkner, associate director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, which pushed the ballot question. “Either you win or you lose. But this one has been in limbo. All I can say is: Hallelujah!”
The fallout doesn’t end there. If the state reaches that long-awaited goal in 2020, taxpayers will again be allowed to claim charitable deductions on their state tax returns the next year. Voters had approved that deduction at the ballot box in 2000 as well, but were only able to capitalize on it for one tax year before the Legislature suspended it.
The impact, of course, will vary among individual taxpayers. But over the course of a full fiscal year, it could add up to hundreds of millions in less revenue the state and its policy-makers have available to put toward priorities like health care or housing. Andrew Bagley, vice president for policy and research at the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said it could be as much as $250 million to $300 million a year.
Compounding the problem for state bean-counters: Extra revenue the state could lean on in the coming years from marijuana sales or gaming is far less concrete than the money it’s likely to lose, analysts say.
So how exactly did we get this complicated maze of economic triggers and tax maneuvering?
After voters opted to slice the income tax rate in 2000, the first ticks downward occurred at the start of 2001 and 2002.
But amid a stormy financial picture, the Legislature stepped in, freezing the rate at 5.3 percent and passing a set of thresholds the state’s economy would need to meet each year for the rate to continue dipping toward 5 percent. The move meant the cuts would happen much more slowly than voters intended and only if the state’s economy was in good standing.
The complicated formula for triggering the tax cut includes five steps. Among them: Revenue, adjusted for inflation, must increase more than 2.5 percent from one fiscal year to the next.
The state has not hit the necessary benchmarks each year, so a tax cut has been no sure thing from one January to the next. The rate didn’t drop to 5.25 percent until 2012, and the last cut came in 2016, falling to the current level of 5.1 percent.
In the same controversial 2002 law that froze the income tax rate, lawmakers also suspended the charitable deduction, but with a caveat: Taxpayers could again claim it the year after the income rate ticked down to 5 percent.
Helping all this along has been a humming economy and a steady stream of tax collections. The state finished the last fiscal year a billion dollars above expectations in tax revenue. This year, it’s continued to beat projections.
The good times, of course, will not always roll on. But it would also take a significant economic slow-down for the state not to hit same triggers next year to realize the 5 percent tax rate, said Michael Goodman, executive director of the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center.
“If that trigger is not met, it would portend difficult times,” he said. “The real question is, if you return to the relatively low tax rate and we have that difficult downturn, there would be that much less revenue to respond with and deal with. But these are choices we’ve made, the voters made, that elected officials made.”