Misguided Millionaires Tax Was a Nonstarter

By Rachelle G. Cohen

JUNE 18, 2018

Make no mistake, Massachusetts just dodged the economic bullet that the so-called millionaires tax would have been.

But to those public employee unions and progressives that were virtually salivating over the potential $1.9 billion in new revenue extracted from the wallets of the state’s wealthiest residents, there ought to be a broader lesson — play fair.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled 5-2 Monday that the effort to impose a 4 percent surtax on households with incomes of more than $1 million — thereby raising their tax rate to 9.1 percent, the fifth highest in the country — could not properly be put before the voters because it simply tried to do too much.

Raise Up Massachusetts, which had backed the tax hike, knew full well that past efforts to change the state’s Constitution to allow for a graduated income tax had gone down to inglorious defeat — five times in the past 50 years. It was a fact duly noted by Justice Frank Gaziano in his majority opinion. In fact, the voters rejected a graduated tax in 1994 by a whopping 65-28 percent.

So proponents knew they had to throw in a sweetener — because, well, you can fool some of the people some of the time and, sure, it was worth a try. So the ballot measures also promised voters all that extra cash would go toward education and transportation.

What’s not to like?

Problem is, the state Constitution wisely prohibits voter petitions on issues that aren’t “mutually dependent.” And this one, Gaziano wrote “contains three provisions on three distinct subjects presented as a single ballot question.”

“Even if we were to accept the argument that the proposed spending provisions are dependent upon a particular funding mechanism — the proposed tax — that could not change the evident fact that the proposed tax can stand on its own and neither spending provision depends on the other,” the opinion notes.

Now you’d think Attorney General Maura Healey — no slouch in the legal reasoning department — would have grasped that fact back in September 2015, when she certified the petition and sent tax hike proponents down this fruitless (not to mention costly) path that has now left them empty-handed.

Even the attorney general can’t wave her magic wand and turn an unconstitutional ballot question into a winner just because she likes it and wouldn’t mind currying favor with the progressive activists who supported it.

“The attorney general has not articulated a common purpose between these spending priorities [education and transportation] beyond the abstract determination that both purposes are ‘broad areas of public concern,’ ” the opinion noted.

So is the opioid crisis, for that matter, but it doesn’t mean it should be tied to an income surtax.

Raise Up Massachusetts, aided and abetted by an attorney general who chose to be more tax hike cheerleader than objective arbiter of that which properly belongs on the ballot, did itself a huge disfavor. If it truly believes the state’s wealthiest — and dare we say, most productive — citizens need to be taxed more, it could have proposed a clean surtax bill.

Instead the group outsmarted itself and wasted the past three years. But then again, it’s what they deserve.

Rachelle G. Cohen, former editorial page editor of the Boston Herald, is a contributing member of the editorial board.