Editorial: Time Out on Tax Hike

By Herald Staff

An alliance of business groups is poking sharp holes in the effort to establish a millionaire’s tax in Massachusetts, arguing in a new lawsuit not just that the proposed constitutional amendment is bad policy (it is) but that it is constitutionally flawed and should not have been certified to appear on the 2018 ballot.

Wealthy people aren’t the only ones who should be grateful for this effort; Massachusetts voters who five times have rejected a graduated income tax now have someone protecting their interests. Same for those who understand that it’s a terrible idea to give high-income earners an incentive to flee for friendlier states.

The millionaire’s tax, which has been on greased skids on Beacon Hill since labor unions and community advocates first drafted it, would enshrine in the state constitution a 4 percent surcharge on income above $1 million, with the funds earmarked for education and transportation.

The lawsuit filed by an array of business groups asserts that the question violates Article 48 of the state constitution, which governs the initiative petition process, and asks the Supreme Judicial Court to block it from appearing on the 2018 ballot.

The question combines unrelated subject matters, which is not permitted, the suit argues, and “plainly” amounts to logrolling — pairing an unpopular measure (a tax increase) with a popular one (higher spending on roads and schools) to improve its chances of passage.

Article 48 also prohibits “specific appropriations” by initiative petition, the suit points out. Supporters of the amendment slapped a fig leaf over the spending part of the question, but their intent is plain.

The plaintiffs also argue that Article 48 should be construed to forbid setting a specific tax rate in the state constitution, which can not be amended by lawmakers. To allow it would be “a radical decentralization of fiscal policy away from the Legislature.”

In their zeal to advance the question to the 2018 ballot revenue-hungry lawmakers may not have considered these nuanced points. But presumably they were considered — and astonishingly, rejected — by Attorney General Maura Healey, who permitted the question to proceed. The matter is now in the hands of the state’s highest court, which lucky for taxpayers has no particular dog in this fight.